Products of all kinds go through testing before distribution to the general public. Books undergo that same type of scrutiny by carefully selected test readers, though the process can be more effective with some research and time investment.
Writers, consider these things as you select those individuals who will test read your work at each stage.
Alpha readers are the first to see a draft once it’s finished (or chapter-by-chapter, depending on the writer’s preference). At this point, the work is rough and unpolished. In order to receive useful feedback, a test reader at this stage should understand to focus on wider, conceptual issues. Handing a first draft to a person who is detail-oriented, passionate about grammar, or has a limited concept of writing as a process will only result in misunderstandings and wasted time on both sides.
This person should be trustworthy and well-read in the genre (preferably current in their reading) in order to help avoid any over-done cliches or dead-end material. For example, a good alpha reader would point out if the story they’ve been given is worryingly close to a popular book, and provide feedback on which portions led them to this concern. That child hero with a distinctive scar? That sexy vampire man? Got a superhero with bug powers? Well, better switch something up to make sure they’re original.
On that note, test readers at any level should be articulate, tactful, and good communicators in print and in person. If they can’t communicate their comments clearly and clarify their points when asked, the process will be frustrating and unproductive.
Just before the book goes to the editor, consider getting a few beta readers. Many beginning writers simply put a call out to other writers to ask if they would read the work and give them feedback. While this is a good start, Janice Hardy explains (in her excellent Beta Readers post) that a great team of beta readers is assembled based on their individual strengths.
The question of reliability challenges most writers looking for fresh readers. Many send several copies out to individuals who have volunteered to help only to have a tiny percentage send feedback, if they finish the read at all!
Writers benefit from creating a network among other writers, and beta reading is one way to develop credibility among writing peers. For those volunteering to read for others, consider how you would want to be treated. Don’t commit to more pages than it’s possible for you to finish in a timely manner. Provide thoughtful feedback, being aware that you are not being asked to proofread or to tell them how to write their book. Play to your strengths since the purpose of a beta read is to discover what is effective, and what isn’t.
As the author sharing work, this is a time for good impressions and professionalism. Your work is important to you, so mention anything you want them to look at specifically in their read. Ask them what they believe their writing strengths are, in order to know if their particular skill set can strengthen your work. This may be an odd thing to ask a stranger over the internet, so make sure the people you get to read the project are people whose skills you at least know (and that you can come to trust).
If you find a willing, reliable, and professional beta reader, keep them! Thank them (in the acknowledgements of your book, by courteous note, or whatever else seems appropriate) and remember they have work too. Courtesy counts, and returning the favor when asked is the least one can do to keep an excellent writer contact.
Alright, these two main groups of test readers are great, but it should be noted they never take the place of a professional editor. An editor’s job is to make the work clean, not to make it a bestseller. Whatever holes you have in the story should be thoroughly worked out before the book reaches the editor’s desk. Sending an editor only a partially revised manuscript will result in a grammatically perfect bad story. Essentially, that’s putting lipstick on a pig and sending it to a beauty pageant.
Also, Alpha readers and Beta readers are unpaid services. Correcting major issues before turning the draft to the editor will maximize the benefit of investing in this professional service.
All writers have their system, and taking advice is completely optional. Those who use test readers, and who have developed a strong network of supportive test readers, swear by the positive benefits. The simplest truth stands that quality control saves time, money, and (in the case of self-published authors especially) pride when the project finally goes live. Knowing the material has been tested boosts confidence in the project like nothing else can.