An often overlooked, but extremely important stage of publishing is the beta reading stage.
Beta reading is usually done after the first few drafts and edits on a manuscript when the author is relatively satisfied with the direction their novel is taking.
The purpose of beta reading? For a manuscript to be read and evaluated by standard readers.
Beta readers can be anyone from friends and family, to other authors, and even paid critiques. However, the most important part of beta reading is that it is read by true readers. While it is helpful to have someone well versed in finding plot holes, or worldbuilding, or other more finite details of writing, beta reading is generally to see the reaction a manuscript generates from the target audience.
Not everyone makes a good beta reader though. Good beta readers know what they like or dislike in a book, understand flat characters, or can at least offer good reasons as to why they formed a certain opinion about an aspect of the novel.
For instance, a good beta reader would be able to answer the question, "Who was your favorite character and why?" with a well thought out answer such as, "My favorite character was Sue because of the way she wasn't afraid to stand up for her friends." The answers don't have to be long, or preachy, or revolutionary, they simply need to be well thought out and helpful. For instance, a UNHELPFUL answer to that question would be, "I liked the characters." These kinds of answers doesn't help the author narrow down the highlights and shadows of their novel.
Things to expect as a beta reader:
1) grammatical mistakes.
More often than not, a manuscript hasn't been through intense grammatical editing before the beta reading stage. If you don't mind some typos or funky sentence structure, then you have nothing to fear! But if you're stickler for grammar, you may want to steer clear.
2) sensitive authors who want/need real, raw feedback.
As a beta reader, you may be one of the first people to ever read and give feedback on a manuscript. It's important to remember that the manuscript isn't going to be perfect by any means (the point of beta reading is to make it better) and it's most likely the beloved "child" of the author; that means you should be careful the way you phrase things. If you simply stated, "I hated the MC," not only would the author be pretty hurt, but it wouldn't be helpful. However, you could say the same thing and still be helpful such as, "I disliked the MC because her actions were often irrational and violent." Same answer, but this time it gives the author something to work off of. That being said, don't be afraid to hold back your opinions! The author still needs you to tell them you if disliked a character (or scene etc.) so they can improve and perhaps try to make the character more likeable. Or maybe they want the character to be unlikeable and you gave them the reassurance they needed! You never know how you might be able to help an author with your feedback so it's important to be honest.
Sometimes you might beta read for an author and they don't have any set questions. However good practice is that the author has set question for their readers to answer. Not only does this help the author to get the feedback they need, but it also keeps the beta readers from being intimidated.
Here are a few examples of what beta reading questions might look like.
When did you first stop reading and why?
Who was your favorite/least favorite character and why?
Were there any noticeable plot holes or concepts you didn't understand?
What was your favorite part of the book?
They can also be more specific like,
How did you feel about Jane's reaction to John stealing her car?
Did you find chapter 1 info-dumpish or confusing for a first chapter?
If the author you're beta reading for doesn't have questions, you can ask them for some or use these basic beta reading questions!
Why should you beta read?
Beta reading is perhaps one of the most helpful things anyone can do for an author, even for authors who are on their 10th book!
If you love reading, beta reading is a fun way to take part in the publication process, give feedback that might actually shape the book, and let you read for free!
If you're a writer, beta reading will help you to see your own writing in a new light as you learn from the mistakes and nuisances you see in other author's writing. It also teaches you a new perspective on writing and even how to take constructive criticism.
Just remember to be positive and sensitive but also honest! The author needs your help and, as a reader, there is no one better than you to give it.
May the suns smile upon your presence
—Effie Joe Stock