Let's talk about beta readers.
First, what even is a beta reader?
Similar to beta testing software, beta readers are someone - generally unpaid- you test an unreleased work of literature or other writing. They are not professional editors, but they can offer the point of view of the average reader on plot, pacing, consistency, and emotional impact.
Why should you use a beta reader?
Because you want your book/short story to be the best thing that it can be. Beta testing is done to catch anything wrong with the program, and they same can be said about beta reading. It offers a chance to see how your book is perceived by someone other than you--an unbiased opinion that you desperately need. Whether you're going the traditional route and want to make it the best thing before agents get it or you're going the independent route and will be marketing to readers yourself, you want to make darn sure that it's as good as you think it is. It is invaluable to the editing process so that you can figure out what readers will like and what needs to be changed in second, third, and sometimes fourth drafts.
If I've convinced you that you should use a beta reader, please check out the following Dos and Don'ts of using a beta reader.
DON'T go into it only looking for compliments.
Yes, we all want to be told that our book is the next Hunger Games, but I'm sure even Suzanne Collins had to work through several drafts and a couple of rounds of critique. No one gets to be successful without being willing to be told what is NOT working for their story. Get into the mindset that there is no such thing as negative critique--it's all positive if it gives you direction on improving your future masterpiece.
DON'T use your mom.
Of course, your mom loves your book. She's your mom, but an agent (or a reader) doesn't care that your mom thinks you write better than Stephan King. This stays true for you sister/brother/best/friend. You want someone who is going to be honest with you. Even if its brutal.
It's totally fine to get your loved ones' opinion. Just save it for the finished product.
DO pick someone in the arena with you.
Brene Brown - the goddess as she is - studies and writes a lot about vulnerability, connection, and criticism. She says that the only person she accepts criticism from is people in the arena with you. What this means is they are fighting the same types of battles as you -- they are writers who write and read and have their own skin in the game. This goes back to the don't use your mom. You need people who know what they're talking about - who have spent the hours researching character development, plot structure, etc. etc. This doesn't mean they are experts. It means they have a knowledge base and an understanding that makes their critique valuable.
Does this mean you can't just use general readers? Not necessarily. I allowed one friend to read because she'd read for another friend before and because she read a lot of books in my genre. She gave me some good feedback and encouragement, but she also missed a lot of things that came up in the second round of beta-ing. So you can use them, but you can't ONLY use them.
DO communicate to them what you want out of beta reading.
What kind of feedback are you looking for? A broad overview? Detailed comments throughout? Make sure your beta readers know this.
What are you most concerned about? Character development, plot structure, pacing? Make sure your beta readers know this as well.
The more you communicate with them, the more likely it is that the critique is going ton contain what you need it to.
DO multiple rounds of beta readers.
My beta-reading for my novel looked a lot like this. After reviewing the first draft, I sent it for one round of beta editing. I made changes based upon their feedback. Then I sent it to another round. I did another massive overall based on that feedback. Then I sent it back to the second round beta to see if the changes I made addressed her major concerns. When I was happy with it, I sent it to a freelance editor who gave it one last lookup. And now, it's done.
The reason I feel it's important to follow each new draft with another round of beta-editing is because essentially everything changed. You introduced elements that worked better, but maybe introduced some things that weren't better. In addition, things are going to be caught that were missed in round one. The more feedback you can get, the better.
DO send to more than one beta reader at a time.
Here's the cruel truth. Not everyone is going to like the book. In each round of beta reading I had, I used two beta readers. In both, one liked the book, while one thought it sucked. This taught me several valuable things. I learned who my audience was. Someone, I ended up with one female and one male in my rounds. Guess who loved my romantic, scifi dystopian book, and who disliked it?
I also learned that there is something valuable in even the nastiest of critiques. After getting over my hurt, I realized that in the comments there were things that I could fix and probably had a grain of truth in them.
But how do you tell what is just personal preference and what is something that needs to be fixed? That brings me to my next point.
Do listen FOR common themes.
Whether they overall liked the book or did not like the book, there were themes that propped up for everyone. The structure I'd chosen wasn't working, and my main character wasn't like-able. Had I just had one beta reader who told me this, I probably would have shrugged it off as unfair, harsh comments or their personal preference. But because I used more than one beta reader -- and multiple rounds -- I was able to see that the theme kept coming up. This meant I had a real problem that needed to be fixed.
DON'T take it all to heart.
When things don't match between beta readers, i.e. no identifiable themes, I had to exhale the negativity. As mentioned, some people will just not like certain things. An example was that both male beta readers told me I needed to cut the romantic scenes in a section of my book - they were boring! All the female readers I had read the book, however, loved them and didn't think they could or should be cut -- including the freelance editor who graduated from a publishing academy. Again, this is yet another reason to do multiple rounds with multiple beta readers.
If given critique that you don't understand, clarify it with them. If they didn't comment about a particular thing you needed feedback on, don't be afraid to ask them. I've never had one that wasn't willing to discuss things to help you improve their story.