A beta reader is someone who gives you feedback on your writing. Hopefully, more than you see in my illustration, but you take what you can get.
Typically, a beta reader will receive your work when it’s been edited and proof-read until you’re certain the thing is nearly perfect. But unless you’re an exceptional writer (and they do exist), it won’t be perfect at all. The best critiques will have you looking at them thinking, “I can’t believe I missed that.” And then you scurry back to your manuscript to fix it.
I consider it a point of courtesy never to give readers who critique my work anything but my best. I’ve read where people will say, “Ignore the typos, the grammar, and punctuation–I can fix those later. Just tell me about the story.” I usually ask them to contact me later when all that’s fixed. If your piece isn’t as polished as you can possibly get it, you’re not being respectful of your beta readers’ time.
I would strongly recommend that you get beta feedback from another writer if possible. I didn’t know any other writers in real life, so I’ve had to make connections on the internet, on writing forums. And it’s been a unique increase in perspective. I’ve swapped critiques from people all over the world.
So how do you find people to do this for you? I joined AbsoluteWrite, and they have a whole subforum dedicated to swapping beta critiques, although I wouldn’t recommend posting there until you’ve gotten in at least fifty posts, preferably critiques on the Share Your Work forum.
I highly recommend beta swaps because not only do people stick with it better if there’s something in it for them (it’s only human nature), but I’ve learned a great deal critiquing other novels. As an example, when I first started writing my word counts were too high, and I had the daunting task of cutting my manuscripts by a third. I did the best I could on my own, before swapping with other writers. And on their manuscripts, it was far easier to see what was really excess baggage. Then I took those skills back to my own work. I’ve gotten quite good at cutting, and it’s almost all the result of beta reading.
The most successful beta swaps mature into online writing relationships. I have long-standing friendships with four other writers right now, and we’ll often ask each other to read a short or a passage, or even just ping each other because we’re stuck on a phrase or want to know if there’s any obvious holes in our Latest Great Idea. And it’s been wonderful. There’s nothing quite like the feeling that you’re not alone– you have confident, capable friends who are willing to help.
However, just because you really like these people, it doesn’t mean you have to always agree with them. Grammar and punctuation are one thing, but style issues are sometimes a matter of taste. You don’t have to take every suggestion, just those that resonate with you. In the end, it’s your story.
Which is why I also recommend multiple beta swaps for each work. If you trade with three different writers, and they all think a particular passage is weighing your book down, you might be well-advised to at least reword it. And different betas will catch different things. Also, as you read their work, you’ll learn unique lessons in the writing process from each.
So, bite the bullet and submit your work for critique. It will pay back the investment many times over.