For people who have never gone through the process:
Beta reading is a critique, a beta test of a manuscript that has gone through all major revisions except the final review by a copy editor or proofreader.
Beta reading is like a “screen test” of the book, where the author is looking for feedback from a small audience on the premise, the characters, the plot, what worked, what didn’t, etc. For example:
Did you love it? Hate it? Or was it somewhere in the middle?
Were there any plot holes? Were there any parts where you were unable to suspend your disbelief?
Were any of the characters weakly portrayed? Did they do anything that seemed out of character?
How was the pace? Did the story ever get bogged down?
What did you like most? Least?
And so on. These are just examples — the best feedback is always your genuine reaction, regardless of what the author might ask. Think of it like the casual, open-ended conversation you’d have with a friend as you walk out of a movie theater.
Anything is fair game.
But note, beta reading is NOT proofreading or copy editing. While anyone is free to give that kind of feedback if they want, checks for grammar, spelling, mechanics, usage, and the like should be handled by a professional after edits from the beta stage have been completed but before final publication.
And that’s really it. Some authors might ask their beta readers to fill out a form. Others will keep it open. There will usually be a deadline, so don’t be afraid to ask if the author fails to mention it.
Just remember, you are doing the author a favor, and if the manuscript is difficult to finish, DON’T. Just be honest and share a brief description of where and why you had to stop.
Don’t agree to be a beta reader if you have difficultly giving bad news. It is, ultimately, a critique.
At the same time, don’t go hunting for problems. In fact, if there were only one rule, it would be:
Read as you would any other book you picked up off the shelf.
Thanks for your time.
The fine print:
Every time I have put out a call for beta readers, I wished there was a simple, SHORT guide that explains what it is. Now I can just link to this post (or copy +paste).
In my experience, most potential beta readers won’t actually read something even as short as this — which is ironic considering they’re signing up to read a much longer manuscript — but it’s nice to have for the few who will.