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.
Photo courtesy of K.M. Weiland
Originally posted on Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors