First off, what - exactly - is a beta reader?
A beta reader is simply a person who is willing to carefully read an unpublished work of fiction and offer constructive criticism. In writing, the beta fiction is what lies between the rough draft (the alpha manuscript) and the finished product that is submitted to the publisher. When submitting a work to a beta reader, it is the writer's responsibility to polish her manuscript as much as she can. The beta reader should be reading a complete work (that is, there should be an ending!)
Beta readers are very valuable people. Often, they can point out plot holes that you've missed or catch a misplaced or missing word. They can tell you if your characters seem realistic and if your dialogue sounds natural. Almost always, beta readers are writers themselves, so they are accustomed to thinking about such things as plot, setting, voice, and tension. They can correctly use terms like, 'speech tags' and 'protagonist'. You might have a family member or close, supportive friend who is willing to read your work, but oftentimes they do not make the best beta readers. Not only will they want to spare your feelings by telling you that your work is 'good' (even if it isn't), but they might not know exactly how you should improve your story.
My husband, for example, is an avid reader and a thoughtful, intelligent person. However, he is not a writer and is therefore a terrible beta reader; he simply can't tell me what the problems in my stories are. Having him try to advise me on writing would be like me trying to advise an auto mechanic on how to fix my car. Since I know nothing about cars, all I can do is tell them that I hear a clunking sound or feel a hesitation when I step on the gas. I certainly can't tell them were to start looking for the problem or how to fix it!
So, if you aren't already doing this, I strongly suggest that you find a beta reader. In my next post, I will tell you of some excellent online sources for beta readers as well as give advice on how to become a beta reader yourself.
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