A beta reader can be the proofreader who doesn’t charge you for the service (or only requires cranberry oatmeal cookies as payment), or the person who keeps you motivated by always asking for more story, or the audience you have in mind when writing. Whatever your beta reader is to you (and you may have more than one – in fact, if you can find more than one, that’s a good idea), the relationship between writer and beta is an important one.
You need to be able to trust your beta, and your beta needs to be able to trust you.
Does your beta give honest feedback, trying always to be kind but also not telling you something you’ve written is perfect when you both know it isn’t? Different people have different levels of what they’re comfortable with when it comes to directness/bluntness, but you should never have to worry that your beta is lying to spare your feelings. If you can’t take any criticism, even that offered with the greatest tact and kindness, perhaps you are not yet ready to share your writing with anyone. This is not the same as saying that your writing isn’t any good. It just means you need a little emotional distance from the writing before you can move on to the step of checking it for things that may need changing.
Can your beta count on you to listen to that feedback without becoming angry and argumentative? After putting a lot of time into reading and paying attention to what she/he reads to be able to comment on it, your beta deserves at least basic courtesy, and it’s rude to ask someone’s opinion and then yell at them for giving it. This is not the same as you having to accept everything your beta says. Perhaps your beta has told you that a certain line of dialogue is ambiguous and needs to be cleared up, but if you intended to keep things a bit mysterious in that scene, just let your beta know that and ask if the dialogue works in that context. Being able to discuss differences of opinion is important to a good writer-beta relationship, and if your beta doesn’t know what you were aiming for, how can he/she know if you’ve hit it?
Now, one of Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Like Heinlein’s advice of ‘Never edit a story unless an editor asks you to,’ this seems to be misinterpreted a lot.
When someone says there’s something in your writing that doesn’t work for them [emphasis added], they’re right. If I say, “I don’t like orange,” how can anyone say that I am incorrect in claiming that I dislike that color? Whether or not it’s a pleasant color is my opinion, but it is a fact that I hold that opinion. If I say that a piece of writing doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work for me. This in no way means that it doesn’t work at all. I’m not the only potential audience in the world, so what doesn’t work for me may be absolutely perfect for the story’s intended audience. (Keep this in mind if you ever ask for my feedback on a vampire story.)
When finding a beta reader, you should look for someone whose general tastes in fiction are close enough to your own that there is no major difference of opinion on what constitutes Good Writing. If you write everything in first person, a beta reader who doesn’t like first person — someone for whom first-person stories flat-out don’t work — isn’t going to give you the best feedback. On the other hand, you also don’t want a beta reader who just loves anything and everything with dragons (or robots, or cat girls) in it and can find no wrong with any such story no matter how ineptly written.
Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where you are asking for feedback from a reader who is not experienced in giving it. Learn to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to seek clarification if something the reader says is unclear. This level of feedback should never be a one-time thing, with the reader telling you what he/she thinks and you going on your way with that and nothing more. If your beta reader will not give you more than one-time comments with no explanation, you need to find a new beta. Casual readers are acquaintances; beta readers are good friends with whom you have ongoing conversations. Beta readers should always be able to articulate why they like or dislike something. If your beta mostly responds to questions with a shrug and “I dunno,” either you’re not being at all clear in your questions, or you need to find a new beta. This is not to say that you should argue with your beta. Just don’t be afraid to discuss things you don’t agree with, or the positive feedback that you don’t understand. (Loyal Reader, my own beta, once told me, ‘This scene is great — loved the understated rage from the other character.’ I hadn’t realized that there was such strong emotion there, but I wasn’t in any way displeased that it came across that way, so I asked Loyal Reader for clarification, some explanation of what bits made that feeling come through, so I could do it again when needed.) If you cannot have a conversation about it, this means, for whatever reason, you and your beta aren’t trusting each other.
I am lucky to have one beta reader (aside from my clone-sibling, of course) on whom I can rely to give honest, thorough feedback as well as encouragement. LR is also the audience I have in mind when I gibber gleefully over something I’ve just written, imagining his reaction. I’d like to have more than one beta reader, if only so LR didn’t have to do all the work (although he’d still get first dibs on reading new stuff), but one good one is far better than a whole slew of bad ones.