Beta readers are the first people to take a look at our masterpieces and give us an independent view. Even if you’ve let your writing sit for months or years before you come back to it, you can never get a completely independent reading of it yourself – you know what you meant to happen and how you intended it to feel. A beta reader doesn’t. And that’s their magic.
Finding good beta readers isn’t easy. You’re asking someone to dedicate several hours of their time to your prototype novel. And you’re asking them to be honest. And you’re probably not offering them much of anything in return.
Most people find their beta readers amongst friends, family or members of a writing group. All three have their disadvantages – the first two are likely to be a little bit star-struck (Wow, someone I know wrote a BOOK!) and a lot biased / afraid of upsetting the author. They also aren’t practised in giving feedback on writing. On the other hand, they will read the work like readers, which is exactly what we want them to do.
By contrast, another writer is probably much better able to express the things they don’t like in a helpful way, and is hopefully used to giving critique of the work without attacking the writer. But there’s a big drawback in the way writers read. They often do so quite unnaturally – “studying” instead of reading. Writers have theories stuck in their heads, like don’t use adverbs or show don’t tell, and they can pick these things out in places where, in reality, they don’t cause a problem. There’s a second big drawback in having a writer as a beta reader – they will be tempted to rewrite. No two writers’ styles are the same, and what you NEVER want a beta reader to do is to try to rewrite the story in their own style and voice.
Personally, I love being asked to beta read and I try to find a happy balance between my reader and my writer sides, but I suspect the best solution for a writer looking for beta readers is to seek out a mixture of different types of reader, brief them well, and be aware of the value and the limitations in their feedback. And to bribe them with beer, acknowledgements once we’re famous, or an appearance in the next masterwork!