Every new short story or novel needs a few good beta readers. You can certainly go ahead and grab your mom, significant other, cousin, and crazy cat-lady aunt, but these aren’t necessarily the best choices. There are few types of people you’ll need to beta read if you want to maximize the benefit of these efforts.
The Genre Lovers
Every writer needs someone with a similar appreciation for the story’s genre. If you’re a fantasy writer, find a buddy who loves reading and writing fantasy, then go find another buddy who just loves reading. The reason for this is simple: you’ll want feedback from a member of your target audience. I recommend the two separate readers because a writer of fantasy is going to see your story differently than the consumer, or, reader. Writers will give you great advice on what techniques and craft elements you need to work on. But on occasion, the writer may be too close to the genre to truly appreciate and enjoy a new story for what it really is. In comes the reader who buys these books all the time and therefore knows what he or she likes without having to examine the technical parts of the writing. These two provide a balance between the readers and the writer-readers, all the while commenting from a place of admiration for your contribution to a beloved genre.
The Other Guy
In addition to giving your writing to people who love the genre, you should also let someone else give it a go. Just because you’ve written a science fiction piece does not mean that a person who reads the classics won’t be able to pick it apart and judge its merits. It’s important to get the opinion of an outside reader, someone who can look at the writing itself without regard to genre-specific tropes. For example, I myself love elves. Any story about elf-like folk and their magical worlds fascinates me. But if I read a new story that I’m expected to give feedback on, I’m quite likely to compare the story to others I’ve read because I’m familiar with elf stories. Comparison is no good in criticism, and I’m put off by those who make comparisons in fiction workshops rather than looking at the work by itself. The “other guy” won’t be able to make these comparisons because the “other guy” doesn’t care too much about them. He will read your work without bias.
The Loved One
Let’s face it: some of the best beta readers are the ones closest to us. They’re the people we live with, the people we love, the people we converse with on a daily or at least weekly basis. They don’t always have to live in the same house as us, but if they do it makes the experience all the easier. Truthfully, our loved ones may not know a whole heck of a lot about writing fiction and they may not even be the biggest fans of the genre we write in, but they know us and that’s the important part. Just remember that they are going to be a little bit biased. Their praises may be out of love or out of pride, so I like to think of this particular beta reader as the one essential to our motivation. Who doesn’t want their wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend singing his or her praises?
Bonus: The Market Master
This is an optional beta reader, as not everyone is going to have access to someone who knows the market. If you do know someone who works in the publishing industry or has worked among writers and editors, seek them out as a possible beta reader. A publisher will not even attempt to sell your book if there is no market for it, so a beta reader who understands how your story could be marketed will provide invaluable feedback. You might do well to find readers like this at a local writer’s workshop or in an online writing community. Branch out, network with fellow writers, and look for feedback from those eager to help. Just be prepared to return the favor if the request ever falls on you.