Let's talk about about beta reading
1. What is the essential difference between a beta reader and an editor?
A beta reader will give you feedback from the reader's perspective and an editor will give you feedback from a publishing perspective. A beta reader doesn't make changes to the manuscript, but provides you with general suggestions, whereas an editor will concentrate on changes to make your manuscript more professional and 'saleable'.
2. What exactly does a beta reader do, and why would I want one?
Beta readers are well-informed readers who’re able to put a finger on what works in your book, what doesn’t, and why. They read widely for their own pleasure, so they’re familiar with both fiction and non-fiction writing, they understand story structure, and they have a universal view of the world of story-telling and its possibilities. A beta reader may be an editor as well, but you need as many eyes on your manuscript as possible, so look at finding a different editor or editors.
A good beta reader will read your book from cover to cover and comment on everything that strikes them. This should include the first paragraph and the climax, the plot, how they feel you’ve managed setting, tension, character development and dialogue, and the consistency and appeal of your writing style—your 'voice'. They will also comment on the simple fact of how your book grabs them; where it's awesome and if/where it falls short of awesome.
It is critical to find a beta reader who's able to differentiate between what works well and what they don’t like personally.
You'll also need a written report at the end of the process that outlines reasons for every one of their suggestions. It'll make their findings easier for you to go through and accept or reject.
Did I say reject? Yes. It's your book, and you know what you want to achieve with it, so the final say about any changes is up to you. Just be very careful you aren't rejecting solid suggestions just because it hurts. Stephen King exhorts writers to "kill your darlings"; those words you've breathed life into aren't all always the best thing for your book.
3. The importance of genre
The area of a beta reader's expertise is critical because they'll have better insight into some genres than others. Nobody can be excellent at everything, so don't be afraid to ask. Make sure your beta reader has a good understanding of or affinity for your genre. A beta reader who provides excellent input on your neighbor's Cosy Mystery may not be as adept when it comes to critiquing your Young Adult Vampire romance.
4. When should beta reading be done?
There are two places where you could use a beta reader, and both writers and beta readers are divided on this. In the end, it's up to you.
The first is after you’ve finished self-editing, in preparation for your content edit. The content editor will look at the detail of how your book works; plot, themes, characterization—anything that relates to the structure and content of the book—and a beta reader will help you get organised for that phase by providing you with input to examine before you get to the intricacy of a structural edit.
Some people believe that beta reading should only be done after the book has been returned by the structural editor and you've implemented any corrections that came out of that process. Personally? I feel that's leaving it a bit late. You don't want to risk messing with your expensive and time-consuming content edit, based on impressions from your beta reader.
Yet other people feel you should do beta reading before and after your content edit. Your call.
5. How many beta readers do I need?
Bear in mind that if you use three beta readers you’ll probably get three conflicting reports. This is because beta readers are people too and, regardless of expertise, they have their own preferences just like the rest of us.
If you want diverse input you could use two or three beta readers; just be careful that you don't end up with a confused mess of input that you have no idea how to use. It's more constructive to get feedback from one beta reader before the next starts reading.
If you're writing non-fiction for people who aren't familiar with your topic, you may want input from someone who's an expert—to be sure you got the facts straight; and from someone who knows very little about it—to be sure you've made it easy enough to understand. In that case, two beta readers would be a great asset.
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, as you become more experienced you'll learn what works best for you—and which beta readers you prefer using.