For the first time in my life, quite recently, I was addressed as a BetaReader.
It felt rather cute. I was sent a manuscript to read and assess, and at the end I was asked, as the draft's BetaReader, a number of very sensible questions.
Did the narrative style work? Was there anything about the story that seemed forced? What, if anything, dragged on too long? What, if anything, was treated too quickly, or too lightly, and needed extending? Any suggestions for a better title? And, probably most important of all, did I think the novel was ready for publication?
A BetaReader, according to Wikipedia, that great encyclopedia in the sky, is a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting.
BetaReaders are not professionals. They may have been proofreaders, copyeditors, or editors in their Other Lives; they may even be book reviewers, and it is very likely that they are writers, too. But in this case they are looking at the manuscript as an unpaid favor.
If they are doing the job properly, they will point out holes in the plot, inconsistencies, confusions, and anything else that makes your book not quite as good as it should be. If you are lucky, they are knowledgeable enough about your setting or subject to be willing to do a little fact-checking on the side.
There's a lot on the internet about finding BetaReaders, how to treat them, what to expect of them, and how to be a BetaReader yourself. One is Belinda Pollard's "What Makes a Good BetaReader" on her SmallBlueDog publishing blog.
What should you look for in a BetaReader?
Someone who is representative of your target audience, that's what. That is partly why our Old Salt Press cooperative works so well: all Old Salt Press writers are maritime writers who really know their stuff, and we are all each others' BetaReaders. Our books are aimed at discriminating readers who love stories about the sea, and so what better BetaReaders could we have?
Secondly, you need a BetaReader who is willing to be open and honest, but who is able to state forthright opinions without destroying the faith you have in your book. This means that you don't want a personal friend who is too fond of you to be critical; you want someone who is not afraid to tell the truth, but not in an unkind way.
And how do you work with a BetaReader?
A good summary of this is "5 Things you Should Know About Working with Beta Readers" by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas on Joel Friedlander's The Book Designer website.
Their first recommendation is to give your BetaReader a clean, polished manuscript. I have slightly mixed feelings about this, as I find it harder, somehow, to be open, honest and critical about a clean, polished manuscript. For some reason it is easier to make suggestions when it still looks like a draft, particularly when suggesting major changes.
Secondly, give it to them in the form they like best -- which means asking what form they prefer. Or, alternatively, you can send it in several forms, such as .doc, .pdf, and .mobi. Personally, I am happy with .doc. I save it, send it to myself at Kindle, and then read it on my Kindle or iPad.
Third, let them know what you want from them. An excellent way of doing this is to have a checklist of questions, like the list I gave at the head of this post. Do you want the manuscript copyedited, with track changes? Or do you shudder at the thought of getting a copyedited ms back? Tell them, if so, and save yourself (and your BetaReader) a lot of grief.
Four is really, really important. Be professional. Don't take the criticisms personally. Understand that your BetaReader is well-intentioned, and honestly wants the book to be ten times better. If you just want a pat on the back and to be told what a magnificent beast your manuscript is, don't bother with a BetaReader.
The fifth suggestion in this list is to be willing to return the favor.