A beta reader is someone who agrees to look over a piece of fiction for spelling, grammar, characterization, and continuity errors. Unlike a true editor, a beta reader is typically unpaid, and he or she sees the work at a very rough state. Many authors like to use betas to improve the quality of their work before they submit it for professional editing and critique, and betas are usually profusely thanked in acknowledgments, in recognition of the time and energy which they invested in the work.
The term is borrowed from the software industry, which uses “beta” to describe an imperfect release. This release is used by beta testers, who try to identify problems with the software before it is used by the general public. These beta testers often try to deliberately break the software, looking for any points of weakness which could pose problems, and a good beta reader, or beta, does the same.
The duties of a beta are myriad. In addition to acting as a general proofreader looking for typographical errors, the beta also looks for flaws in characterization and plot. The beta may question why a character does or does not do something, or how someone ends up in France with no apparent explanation halfway through the third chapter. Authors sometimes miss these flaws as they are caught up in the greater whole, so a beta reader is especially valuable.
Many websites provide directories of betas, who usually specify what kind of fiction they like to work on. Some, for example, may specialize in fan fiction, while others like working on fiction novels intended for professional publication. In some cases, a beta agrees to edit in exchange for beta reading of his or her own work, in a quid pro quo trade. The best beta is unknown to the author, and therefore able to provide a useful and honest critique of the work.
Any author who imagines that he or she does not need a beta is sadly mistaken. Beta readers will only improve the quality of a written work, although they may sometimes offer very severe criticism. Many authors like to use multiple betas to solicit wider opinions, making their work even better. In rare cases, a beta reader may be excessively harsh or even mean, but these betas are highly unusual. Most are supportive critics who offer meaningful and thoughtful commentary on the work.