What is a Beta reader? This is a term that writers use for a person who reads through a manuscript before the final editing pass is made. This is invaluable, and writers such as myself who are fortunate to have a handful of helpful, reliable Beta readers know how important they are to the process. But, what does a Beta reader do during and after reading a manuscript? Here are four things that I, as an author, find the most helpful. Should you be asked to serve as a Beta reader for an author, this will, I hope, serve as a handy guide to follow.
1. What did you think? - This is probably the thing that your author wants to know above all else! What did you think? Did you like it? How would you rate it? If you liked it, you can even write up a sample review to help encourage the author.
2. Are there any major mistakes? - You know, things like objects and characters appearing and disappearing, plot holes you could drive a road train through, things like that. One common mistake writers make is losing track of who is speaking. If s/he he isn't using "Bob said" and "Jane said" after every line of dialogue (and s/he shouldn't be!) then a character will occasionally respond to him/herself. It happens. Are there any spots that were ridiculous or didn't make sense? Any stilted or stupid-sounding dialogue? Any unrealistic decisions made by the characters? Were any laws of physics broken? Does anything in the story contradict the internal consistency of the world the author has created? There are all the "big" questions that readers will use to gauge whether or not a book is "good" or "bad."
3. Are there many typos/grammatical errors? - Even in "traditionally-published" books, errors will slip through. It would take an unreasonable amount of time and several sets of eyes to catch everything. However, authors, being so close to the work, often read what they meant to type rather than what they actually did type. Small typos will most likely slip through. Even if the author is going to hire a professional editor, or his/her publisher has one on staff, they can miss things. The more eyes the better, and your author will be grateful for any errors you can point out. Another thing to look for are unusually-worded phrases. If you have to read a sentence a couple of times to understand what the author means then other readers will as well.
4. Which sections are strongest? Which are weakest? - Sometimes a writer can fall in love with a scene and blind him/herself to its problems. If a particular scene doesn't quite work for you, let the writer know, and tell him/her why. You can even offer an idea of how you think the scene can be salvaged. On the other hand, let the writer know which scenes you loved! This information can be useful if the writer is going to be posting an excerpt with which to "hook" readers.
If you have any other things you think Beta readers can look for, please post them in the comments below!