I was introduced to the idea of using “beta readers” through the Northwest Independent Writers Association and Willamette Writers. Essentially, you request someone whose judgement you trust to read your manuscript and give you honest feedback about it. In a way, it’s a kind of informal editing, and usually it’s not something you pay for. Most often, it doesn’t look to format editing (punctuation, spelling, grammar), so much as developmental issues (Does the story work?). It helps when you focus your beta reader’s attention on specific questions, such as:
Is my story arc sound? Does it ring true? Did it hold your attention throughout or did it lag in places? Did it build as it should have? Was there a good hook at the beginning, a solid middle, and a satisfying ending?
Are there holes in the plot? Logical inconsistencies? Problems with time frames?
Are my characters believable? Do the descriptions of them work?
Do the conversations sound like the way people really talk?
Obviously, you’re asking a lot of your friend and she has to feel that you want honesty, not affirmations. Be prepared to have some wind let out of your sails. When your beta reader tells you that your favorite chapter is a dud, it can hurt.
So be kind to your beta reader. Don’t hand him a first draft. Hand him a second draft, after you have already spent time reworking and polishing your manuscript.
Do you believe everything a beta reader tells you? Obviously not, but beware of “the forest for the trees syndrome.” You may be too close to your “baby” to really make an accurate assessment. Your beta reader came in from the cold, refreshed, without preconceptions, without all the internal dialogue that’s been keeping you up at night. Listen to her. Take her opinions seriously. The success of your book may depend upon it.
In the end, all my colleagues recommend hiring a professional editor for the final product. That can be very expensive, but I have yet to hear anyone tell me it wasn’t worth it.