Belinda has some very good points about what to look for in a beta reader – I think the most important point is that they read – a lot. Someone who reads a lot knows what stories are supposed to “sound” like when they are read, even if they don’t know why. And they don’t have to know the why’s of a good book, that’s the authors job. But they can point out areas in the ms when the author isn’t hitting the mark, or when the author has strayed (“That part was a bit slow.” or “I found myself wanting to skip this part.”…)
I usually have different readers who are good a differenr things. I have one friend who is very good at picking up grammar and punctuation errors. This is helpful to me because if I can fix those things before I send the ms to the editor then that is less time the editor has to take with my manuscript, which then saves me money on my edit. I have another friend who is good at picking up on what’s good or not so good with the story itself – if I should have given more detail in some place or went over too long in another place.
What Belinda doesn’t mention is how many readers you should have for your book. I would recommend at least three and more if you can find them. I say this for two reason.
1. I am constantly amazed how people read the same material differently and find different things.
2. Not everyone you ask to read is going to give you what you’re looking for, so the more people you have reading, the better your chances of getting good feedback.
Another important thing to remember is to give your beta readers some instructions about what you want or don’t want them to do. If they have agreed to read your ms then they want to help you. Give them a heads up and let them know what kind of feedback you’re looking for. This helps them focus and not get totally lost in the story. And your instructions might not be the same for each reader, either.
And last but not least – thank them – profusely! A dinner, bottle of wine, chocolates… whatever suits their fancy, and be sure to give them a copy of the book, once it’s done (assuming they liked it :)) Hopefully they will be willing to help you again, and again.