I am fortunate in that I have excellent friends who are willing to do this for me, and their suggestions are both kind and spot on.
This first reading by an unbiased eye is meant to give the author a general view of the overall strengths and weaknesses of their story. This phase of the process should be done before you submit the manuscript to an editor.
In my work, the suggestions offered by the beta reader (first reader) guide and speed the process of revisions, so that my editor can focus on doing her job without being distracted by significant issues that should have been caught early on.
If you agree to read a raw manuscript for another author, you must keep in mind that it has NOT been edited. The author is not asking you to edit the manuscript.
This manuscript is the child of the author’s soul. Be sure to make positive comments along the way and never be chastising or accusatory. Always phrase your suggestions in a non-threatening manner
What are the larger issues that must be addressed before the fine-tuning can begin? If you are beta reading an unedited manuscript, these are the more significant issues you should look at:
How does it open? Did the opening hook you? As you read on, is there an arc to each scene that keeps you turning the page? Make notes of any places that are confusing.
Setting: Does the setting feel real? Did the author create a sense of time, mood, and atmosphere? Is the setting an important part of the story?
Characters: Is the point of view character (protagonist) clear? Did you understand what the character was feeling? Were the characters likable? Did you identify with and care about the characters? Was there a variety of character types, or did they all seem the same? Were their emotions and motivations clear and relatable?
Dialogue: Did the dialogue and internal narratives advance the plot? Did they illuminate the tension, conflict, and suspense? Were the conversations and thoughts distinct to each character, or did they all sound the same?
Pacing: How did the momentum feel? Where did the plot bog down and get boring? Do the characters face a struggle worth writing about, and if so, did the pacing keep you engaged?
Does the ending surprise and satisfy you? What do you think might happen next?
Grammar and Mechanics: At this point, you can comment on whether or not the author has a basic understanding of grammar and industry practices that suit their genre.
Be gentle—if they lack knowledge, suggest they get a style guide such as the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, or if you feel up to it, offer to help them learn a few basics.
I know how difficult it is to share your just-completed novel with anyone. My friends offer comments that help me turn my vision of what the story could be into a reality.
For that reason, being the first reader for their work is a privilege I don’t take lightly.