I have a confession. I've been a shoddy beta reader lately.
I've been very busy with the rest of my life--work picked up, I had a ton to put together for a big reenactment event--and beta reading fell by the wayside.
My brief lapse got me thinking about the ways in which one can be a better beta. Beta reading is not only a great way to offer help to writer-friends (WFs in my weird shorthand), but it can really help you, too. Reading other's not-quite-there work helps you learn how to revise your own. Plus, building relationships is a huge bonus of beta-reading. It's my view that a beta reader can develop into a true critique partner--someone with whom you have an honest and beneficial writer-friend relationship far greater than the usual community support. ('Cause writers tend to be pretty supportive people in general, you know!)
1) Be realistic with yourself. Simple in theory, harder in execution.
Be honest--do you have time to read and reply in a relatively prompt manner? If not, you're not doing your WF any favors.
Do you have the chutzpah to point out negative things about the work? This can be particularly hard, because you don't want to hurt feelings, but a vague or overly praise-filled response doesn't help your WF improve the MS.
And finally--do you even want to read this piece? If it's not your preferred genre, if the pitch bores you because the story isn't your cup of tea, if you've read your WF's prose before and it's just not your style, and most especially, if the MS includes a trigger issue that you can't read easily, you may not be the best person to offer a critical eye to the piece.
Be honest with yourself. And then be honest with your WF.
2) Clear expectations. Ask your WF up front what s/he's looking for, how you can help, and what kind of timeframe s/he's expecting.
A WF who is looking for a close reading for details and language and really hopes to hear back in a couple weeks is very different request from a WF who is looking for big-picture reader reaction and doesn't care if it takes you three months.
Consider asking what kind of comments your WF expects, too, or telling him or her what kind you can give. Does your WF prefer in-text notation? A list of ideas? A few paragraphs of overarching commentary? A mix? Clear expectations will avoid disappointment when your WF gets an email chockablock full of ideas but no in-text comments--and comments were exactly what s/he was expecting.
3) Hold up your end of the bargain. If you say you'll be done in a month, get done in three weeks. If you can't finish in time, or can't finish at all, let your WF know right away. It's common courtesy, but often guilt makes us procrastinate. Don't. It's disappointing enough to not hear back in the timeframe you expect or be told that your beta can't finish at all--it's even worse to have this put off for weeks or months longer than is necessary.
4) Give an honest but kind report. If there are problems, you have an obligation as a good beta reader to talk about them. Talk about them openly, non-judgmentally, and as kindly as possible. I find that speaking from a reader's perspective, rather than a writer's, helps with this. Instead of "Your character development with Maria was weak," I might say "I just didn't connect with Maria as a character." I try to comment on the symptoms rather than offer a diagnosis. As a beta reader, you're an equal with the writer--not an expert deigning to comment on her work.
And make sure to comment on the good stuff, too! This is not only a way to buoy a WF in the face of criticism, it's exponentially helpful to hear what *does* work in a draft.
5) Keep the love going. If you've been honored to be asked by a WF to beta read his or her project, consider asking him or her to take a look at yours. Build the relationship.
What do you think? Are beta readers a beneficial relationship to you as a writer? What are some of your tips for a good relationship?