why-non-writers-are-the-best-beta-readers

What I Learned Writing Dreamlander: Why Non-Writers Are the Best Beta Readers

What qualifies someone as a beta reader?

The term itself tells us this person is someone who reads an early draft of a story. But they’re so much more than just that. I like to think of beta readers as sort of junior grade editors. They’re not full-fledged, bona-fide, paid-and-professional types with half-glasses pushed down their noses and red pens behind their ears. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less savvy—or any less important.

Something that was reinforced to me over and over again during my years-long journey with my fantasy novel Dreamlander (coming December 2) was the importance of beta readers.
I was blessed to have the input of nearly twenty editors, critique partners, and beta readers. They educated, encouraged, occasionally humbled, and always helped me. Without them, the book would never have made it past the pile-of-pages stage.

Two Types of Beta Readers

Most of my beta readers are writers in their own right. Their knowledge of the craft augments and reinforces my own. When we start talking about POVs, voice, dangling participles, and plot points, we’re all speaking the same language. They’re riding right alongside me in their own sometimes bumpy writing journeys. They know what it’s like to be a writer, and our shared experiences and knowledge create a solid foundation of trust in our relationships as givers and receivers of literary criticism.

But there’s another category of beta reader that is just as valuable as my fellow writer. And that, of course, is the non-writer.

Why Are Non-Writing Beta Readers So Valuable?

Non-writers can’t bring technical knowledge of the craft to the table, but they bring something else: their objective experience as readers.

Most readers aren’t writers. They’re not gonna know the technicalities of the craft. They may not even recognize or care about some of the gaffes that would have our fellow writers gasping in horror. But they know what they like, and they know what they don’t like. The very fact that they aren’t writers keeps their opinions from getting tangled up in the technicalities.

I received two whoppingly good critiques of Dreamlander from non-writers. Both were experienced fantasy readers and both were unafraid to let me have it wherever I deserved it. They brought up concerns that my writing beta readers didn’t, both because of their unique perspective as “outsiders” and, I suspect, because they weren’t so caught up in critiquing methodology.

How to Choose a Non-Writing Beta Reader

Now, it’s also true that not all non-writer beta readers are able to get down to the nitty-gritty level necessary to offer truly useful critiques. Some simply aren’t going to be interested in criticizing (and that’s okay—a positive review or two is always welcome early on!). And some may not be able to communicate what they instinctively like or dislike about a story.

Choosing a non-writer beta reader isn’t going to be much different from choosing a writer reader. You’re going to want to select someone who is:

1. Willing to read the book.

Asking someone to tackle a large reading assignment (especially one that is inconveniently formatted as a pdf or a pile of loose pages) should never be taken lightly. You’re asking for a big time investment, so don’t take their help for granted.

2. An experienced reader.

Someone who likes you but doesn’t like to read may enjoy your book (or not), but he’s unlikely to be able to give you the kind of qualified feedback you need to improve your work.

3. Familiar with your genre.

We all hope our stories will be appealing enough to cross genres. But our first goal needs to be dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s within our own niche. Readers who understand fantasy, mystery, and romance will be better able to spot scenes that aren’t working and tropes that have been done to death.

4. Opinionated and proud of it.

Ideally, you want your beta reader to be a sensitive soul who can convey his opinions in a tactful way that won’t smash your tender writer’s ego all to bits. But you absolutely need him to be forthcoming with his opinions. If he hated something, he needs to be brave enough to tell you—and you, in turn, need to be brave enough to take the bruising and thank him for it.

None of this, of course, is to belittle the importance of our writing buddies’ input. I’d have been lost without their help. But in our often easy access to writing friends, we can sometimes overlook the resource of non-writers. The next time you’re on the hunt for a beta reader, don’t forget to consider the ranks of the (not so) common reader. In the end, their opinion is the one that matters most anyway.

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Don’t forget to vote for which prize you’d like to win in the Dreamlander Launch Party Grand Prize Drawing on December 2!

Tell me your opinion: What insights do you find non-writers are able to offer after reading your manuscript?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Beta readers have saved me from some glaring errors, and have contributed cool ideas for improving stories. Ironically, some of the least helpful readers have been fellow writers, each one caught up in the “rules” for his or her own genre, or the perceived rules for mine. On the other hand, there is a small group of writers who have provided just the right insights or suggestions. I value their opinions.

    As for beta readers who are not writers, yeah, they might require a little training on how to provide feedback, but they are unencumbered by the rules. They are free to simply read. Sometimes I’m forced to ask creative questions in order to pull information from them beyond the simple, vague responses (“I liked it” or “It was okay” or “It’s not really my thing”). However, much of that is gold, and well worth the effort.

  2. Guiding beta readers with questions is always important. They can’t give us the feedback we need if we don’t let them know *what* we need.

  3. Since I’m still working on my story, I’ve yet to reach the stage where I need readers, but when I do, I have a few writers and non-writers in mind who I think will be honest enough to give me their true opinion.

  4. This is a great post. Food for thought. Thank you!!

  5. @Lorna: Honesty is really the most important feature of a good beta reader. How readers react to stories is inherently personal. What we want is to figure out how *most* readers are going to honestly react.

    @James: Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. My comment I think will reinforce your post more than anything else.
    You made the point of selecting betas from people who enjoy reading from your genre. Great point.
    Sometimes that same reader may have some unknown expertise that makes them a technical expert or consultant in a topic you’ve written into the story. This point may be obvious but something I felt worth reiterating.
    Thanks for another provocative post!

  7. Absolutely. Fact checking is tough. Even when you think you’re covering all your angles, something is always going to slip through. If you’re able to have someone with expertise in your subject matter double-check you (as I was able to have someone do with the Chicago settings in Dreamlander), you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches in the long run.

  8. I love non-reader beta readers. In my first book, they helped so much, especially in areas that I needed to clarity better.

  9. We can’t ever take readers for granted. They’re what it’s all about. But pre-release readers are invaluable.

  10. I’ve got a couple of non-writer beta readers lined up. Even drafted a simulated ‘Contract’ and list of ‘Elements for Review’ to guide them, give them writer/craft issues to look for(opening page interest, tension, cliche’s in character and plot, overdone prose, excess drama, etc.) But not sure where to find my writer-experienced beta readers without hiring them from Critique Services. Suggestions?

  11. The online writing community is the best place to start. Join forums and make friends on social sites. Save for one longtime writing buddy, that’s how I’ve met all of my crit partners and beta readers.

  12. For me it largely depends. I mean if they aren’t going to rip my manuscript to shreds, or over complement the manuscript, then by all my get a review copy. In my own experience, all critiques seem to be able to do is rip your manuscript to shreds, and use it for toilet paper.

    I remember it school when I was doing a drawing, they asked if I drew that. So I said yes, and then they said “Its looks like a five year old did it.” Needless to say, I don’t draw anymore.

  13. I’m always a little worried about critiques, but as long as it’s good I can usually handle it. I’ve learned a lot, like scenes I thought were over dramatic had no tension for anyone else. Including physical confrontations. So having even a few people read what I’ve written helps. But I didn’t generally have anything to lose since I only recently learned of self publishing.

  14. I think the main thing is I have the tendency to turn in an incomplete as you could say, and so they beta reader would then be trying to make a critique on a partial. Its just means I need to stick to writing for 28 days straight.D:

  15. Great post! Agree, agree agree!!! :)

  16. @Sarah: Constructive criticism is what we’re looking for. Someone who’s just out to trash the novel isn’t going to be helpful. Just the opposite, in fact.

    @Poetry: Criticism is never fun. But it is a necessary evil. We just have to take the time to take the hit, breathe, and recover our balance. Then, more often than not, we’ll be able to approach the manuscript with new eyes and bring improvement.

    @Melissa: Thanks for stopping by!

  17. Quick question: Does it make sense if you working on a novel, to find an editor that specializes in novels? And is it important to have one that specializes in say, New Adult novels instead of YA?

  18. Yes, I would definitely look for an editor who is experienced in your genre. Genre “rules” and expectations vary so much from genre to genre that what an experienced fantasy editor is able to offer may not be right for your literary or YA novel.

  19. I love “opinionated and proud of it!” This is certainly a must. It’s really frustrating to so intensely anticipate someone’s response and get “I liked it.”

  20. Those are the situations that those “bang head here” mats were invented for.

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