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In my opinion, the best beta readers are fellow writers, partly because they may have insight others don't, but partly also because you can agree to trade beta-reading responsibilities. (This is far from a rare opinion; in fact, this special case has its own name, critique partners.) Failing that, bookworms at least know enough from experience about what they like or dislike to tell you where your WIP "doesn't feel like a real book yet".

But if you don't even know people who like consuming your chosen medium - novels, in my case - that leaves what I'll call non-readers. (This isn't meant as judgemental, because everyone has different media and genres of interest, and whatever you write there's such a thing as the "non-readers" that go with it.) And yes, I'm aware one can meet new readers and writers online, but this question concerns whether non-readers are also a valuable resource. It would be a shame if they're not, because every WIP needs several beta readers.

I've not personally had much luck meeting new potential beta readers online, or even at writing conferences, and this has turned my attention to friends or friends' friends. Among them, an interest in reading is hard to come by. I recently persuaded one to read quite a large body of my work, but I subsequently learned I had misunderstood their circumstances, and that they're not the bookworm I imagined, but instead a non-reader.

Although the feedback is in its early stages, it seems to often have unusual expectations for how novels would be structured, and the things they like or dislike and the reasons why are at odds not merely with the views of my previous beta readers, but also with what we're usually told readers look for. Of course, a non-reader may judge a medium with which they're unfamiliar by criteria more appropriate for what they normally consume.

Therefore, part of me feels I should take any critical feedback in their notes with a pinch of salt. To an extent, I could do that even if they were a bookworm; writers are sometimes advised to accept opinions two people agree on, be it themselves and one reader or two readers but not themselves. However, I worry that that takes too narrow a view of what advice to accept if one has only found a very small number of beta readers.

And another part of me feels that any excuse not to take someone's views too seriously, no matter how "logical" that excuse may be, paves the road to declaring one's writing already polished. I absolutely don't want to be close-minded; but I wonder whether non-readers' advice does more harm than good.

I'd planned on titling this question something like, "How can non-readers be useful beta readers?" I was advised this was so subjective it would likely be closed, so feel free to answer whichever question you prefer. And feel free to offer any mix of standardised advice and your personal experience. I'm sure I'm not the only person here who's tried getting feedback from non-readers, or light readers or whatever we call them. Can it work? Are there dos and don'ts, beyond what normally applies to getting feedback?

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    Yes, they can be useful. They will see and miss things in your writing unique to their experience. Things different from you or other readers. Knowing they are non-readers will be helpful in your assessment of their feedback. – DPT Jun 3 '18 at 20:16
  • I would not say "non-readers." As with the answer provided by Amadeus, I don't think that would be useful. You want to have people who do read and who enjoy reading. But you could certainly ask about "non-writers." – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jun 3 '18 at 20:38

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Assuming that by "non-readers" you mean "people who are not fans of the genre you write", they can be useful beta-readers. Here are some points for you to consider, in no particular order.

  • Being used to certain genre conventions, you might no longer notice when those conventions have some inherent logical failure. For example, being used to D&D, you might think of a fireball as dealing fire damage and then dissipating, where for somebody else it would seem logical for the fire to spread, if there's anything to burn.
  • The Beta might be an expert in a field you're not sufficiently familiar with. For example, if an economist had read Harry Potter prior to publication, he might have explained to J.K. Rowling that money doesn't just lie in a bank, doing nothing until the owner comes to pick it up.
  • Similar to the above point, but more deliberate: you might want a beta reader from a certain demographic, and struggle to find someone who's also a fan of your genre. Race, religion, sexual preference, etc. - you might be very familiar with the subject, but if you're not, it's preferable to run what you've written by someone who is.
  • The person might surprise you and themselves by actually liking your book, despite not usually enjoying the genre. They would be able to provide you with feedback regarding what sets your story apart.

However, when offering your work to be beta-read by a person who doesn't usually enjoy this type of literature, be aware that they might not enjoy your work either, and provide you no useful feedback at all. Don't get discouraged by this. And don't force your beta to go on with something they don't enjoy. The last point is important: if a beta reader isn't enjoying your story from the outset, all their feedback is going to be coloured by this. @Amadeus is right about people who'd rather be doing something else.

A particular beta reader's feedback might prove useful, or not useful. Hear out what they have to say, consider it, but use also your own common sense - if a piece of advice strikes you as not useful, ignore it. But then, that's true of all beta readers.

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This answer is specifically from my personal experience rather than objective reasoning.

I think it very much depends on the actual person and their individual abilities rather than whether they read a lot or read at all in your genre.

I avoid using friends and family as beta readers even though they read prolifically and in my genre. The reason is two-fold:

  1. They tend to read passively rather than actively and my work seems to flow over them. If they do have problems with it, they often can't articulate what's causing a disconnect for them because they don't understand enough about the craft to be able to strip a chapter down to its component parts and identify the cause.

  2. They don't want to hurt my feelings, so their feedback is never brutal and honest enough to really be of any help. They usually just say, I loved it.

BUT, there are exceptions. My husband doesn't read fiction AT ALL. He reads one non-fiction book a year. Yet he is my first beta reader: always.

The reason is that, even though he doesn't read, he's heard me talk enough about the craft to have a basic understanding of it. He is also very logically-minded and seems able to separate the component parts of a scene or chapter to identify problems. He also knows that anything less than brutally-honest feedback is a complete waste of time for me and has no issues with hurting my feelings. His feedback is excellent and often mirrors that of experienced writers.

As @Ash says, you need to be discerning in choosing your readers, but I wouldn't necessarily judge them on how much or what they read.

Find your readers by asking dozens of people to read for you and then analyse their feedback. Weed out those who are too protective of your feelings and those who offer no positive critique at all and seem out to hurt and hinder you. Weed out those who can't articulate issues.

The secret is to find the balance of who reads for you and how many. Too much feedback can create a mess and too little won't highlight common problems.

Six is my magic number. Five of those are published authors, professional editors, PhD creative writers, journalists and my husband who is an IT Security Architect!

The magic number of the right readers will help you deal with this:

And another part of me feels that any excuse not to take someone's views too seriously, no matter how "logical" that excuse may be, paves the road to declaring one's writing already polished.

Because no matter how precious you are about your work, if the majority of your readers agree that something isn't working, you know you have to change it. But you need a number of readers to be able to do that. With only one or two, you can outnumber their opinion with your own. That's no good.

As for finding them, I met my beta readers on my creative writing degree and it was probably the most useful thing I got out of that degree. Courses are great places to meet other writers, to get to know them and read some of their work. As you work full-time, you probably aren't able to do a 3-year degree, but you could look at short classroom-based courses. Not only will it help your writing, it's a great place to find beta readers.

Good luck!

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In Software Engineering, a common practice for fixing difficult bugs is called "Hallway debugging". The programmer will go out in the hall and grab the first person he sees and get them to help solve the problem. Since they are not likely to be familiar with the program the programmer is trying to write, he'll have to explain, line-by-line, what his code does. The less knowledgeable the hallway person is, the better, because this means the programmer's explanation has to be more thorough. Any part the programmer has difficulty explaining adequately is likely where the bug is. This is analogous to having non-readers review your book. The goal is to get fresh, unbiased eyes reading what you wrote, and who could be less biased than someone who doesn't read?

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    Software engineering is my day job. In my circle, we call that rubber ducking. I'd love it if the same trick worked in beta reading, but it's not like I talk a reader through what I did in the novel. – J.G. Jun 3 '18 at 19:35
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    Rubber ducking is a much better approach to debugging than what you describe, because it doesn't intrude on another person's time and ability to perform their work. However., I hear hallway testing works very well, and frankly, testing is probably more akin to beta-reading than is debugging... – a CVn Jun 4 '18 at 7:32
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    @MichaelKjörling The other advantage to Hallway as opposed to Rubber Duck is that the human may offer some insight into how they would handle it outside the programming world that may spark an idea in you for how to solve it. Both can function as a simple sounding board, but only the human can offer a fresh perspective. – SGR Jun 4 '18 at 9:24
  • @SGR Yes, I doubt that rubber duck beta reading would be very helpful in offering new insights. However, it's very, very common that once you start to actually articulate a software development problem, the solution becomes apparent because you're actually forced to detail what the code you've written does and how. That's why rubber duck debugging works: by forcing the developer to think through each detail, including any unspoken assumptions and how each step contributes to solving the problem. – a CVn Jun 4 '18 at 9:27
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    @J.G. I find this process works really well for me in the development stage of the novel. I have a writer friend who's a great plotter and we plot our novels together. I have to tell him in detail what's going to happen, chapter by chapter, and he asks me probing questions. These questions force me to analyse my story in-depth and he brings problems to light that I wouldn't notice until deep into the writing. It's a great process that saves a lot of time further down the line. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Jun 4 '18 at 15:31
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Are “non-readers” useful beta readers?

I don't think so. People that don't read, don't enjoy reading. They don't like that kind of fiction, they don't know what is good and bad, it is all bad from their POV because they aren't comfortable reading for that long, they need glasses they don't have (I know three people that don't read because it hurts their eyes, because they haven't gotten new glasses in over ten years). They don't have the time. And if they stopped reading on page 20, you don't know if this is because they reached their limit of tolerance there or the story bored them there.

The only people qualified to judge your book are people that like fiction, that have at least at some time in their lives, consumed a lot of novels.

You might as well be asking kindergarten kids for advice on a good romantic place to go on a third date. No matter how enthusiastic their advice, they don't know what they are talking about.

  • I perhaps should have mentioned in my question that this individual has read some very long fanfics, which set into motions the events that led me to think I have a bookworm on your hands. I think your answer will be very helpful to any author considering a "true" non-reader as a source of feedback, but my situation is perhaps subtler. But since on the medium/genre-dependent definition they are a non-reader, you have a good point even in the case at hand. – J.G. Jun 3 '18 at 19:59
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This depends on what you, and the prospective reader, mean when you say "non-reader" do you mean someone like Person A who enjoys a good tale of derring-do but rarely has the time to crack a book to get at them or do you mean someone like Person B who never reads anything, including his required textbooks and failed English at multiple levels during his education. Person A is a good sounding board for ideas and has enough formal training in written English that if he can find time he's a decent beta-reader across concept, content, and technical/stylistic issues. Person B will give you a scathing look and trash bin anything you put in front of him that doesn't have a movie, or computer game, level of graphic content.

These are not random examples either, I know these two people personally and have gone through various different levels of schooling with them. People who don't read a lot but have a few pieces they're passionate about, I know a couple of people who only read JRR Tolkien for example, and otherwise don't go to the effort of reading because for them it's very hard work can be incredibly useful if you're working in the style they love, if not they can potentially be very damaging as they try to push your work into their comfort zone.

My advice is to generally be very discerning with your beta-readers, each should fulfill a particular role, or roles, in your writing and editing process from generating and molding basic ideas to finalising manuscript format to send to the editor.

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I would say that yes, they are useful, but not on their own.

To get the best overview of your book, it's probably best to get a wide range of readers to preview your book, from "non-readers" to writers of similar types of work as you are writing.

Think of it like doing a test screening of a movie, where you've only invited people who have read the book that the movie is based on. They may all love everything about the movie, even if there are huge chunks of exposition missing, but that is because they already have the background knowledge from the book. When it is released, if someone who hasn't read the book watches it then they will have no clue what is going on, as no one initially gave feedback that relevant plot points were missing.

In a similar way, fellow writers may understand exactly why certain things are happening, for example an exposition dump at the beginning of the story, as they know this information will be needed later. However, a regular reader may assume that the story is entirely just information thrown at them, so would stop reading before they get to the exciting parts.

So it is useful to get someone who isn't as versed in the type of writing that you are creating, as they can give you an opinion without any preconceptions of what your writing is supposed to be. The very fact that they don't have expectations can be useful in finding issues with your work.

Overall, having their opinions cannot hurt, as a broader range of beta readers will be more helpful than only having a single homogeneous group of readers. However, if these specific beta readers are not your target audience, you may have to weigh how useful their advice is when taking their criticisms on board, compared to other readers who will be more likely to read your completed work.

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Rarely. If they don't read, its probably because they don't care to and don't have the time. Which means giving them a work of any size will not lead to a read book. Worse, if your book isn't near completion, they likely won't have the tolerance for mistakes or bad writing. They likely won't know what to look for, either.

I think the rare exception to this is when you are almost done and you've already gone through a revision pass with experts. If you are aiming for a market that you think the non-reader would be in if only they got the right entry level book, and that book is yours, then its a pretty good test. But that means you're likely writing something fast paced in YA. Its not likely to be a good idea if you're writing something slower & aimed at a literary audience or experienced audience who has thought long and hard about your field.

There are always exceptions to the rules, but the people who aren't readers who are likely to finish the work are going to do it mostly because they like you and they won't be good at giving feedback, so it may not be worth your time or theirs.


Anecdotally, the book I wrote last year I gave to people who I knew were readers and a couple non-readers who had expressed interest. Only those closest to me made it to the end, and one of them I had to "forcibly" sit down and read it to them. This was still helpful because its clear the work isn't good enough for even light readers to move past the 3rd chapter. But, if I'm being honest, the word of writers hasn't been particularly helpful either and they have no time and are constantly depressed for not having faith or time for their own work.

The best readers are, imo, published authors or people in the industry, but until you struggle and reach a certain level of skill that door won't be open to you unless you have good connections or money. Which means the only reader you can ever really rely on is yourself unless you're really lucky and or do the work to seek out a good writing group and are lucky enough to have one in your area or find one online.

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Even if they aren't readers, are they part of your target audience?

I am defining a non-reader as someone who, because of a lack of patience, time, or something else, doesn't read often. I am going to argue that there are books actually written (or at least marketed towards this demographic). For example head to a book store near a beach and you will find them full of quick reads (generally romance/thrillers) aimed for the non-reader who desires to have something to do while they sit on the beach. Or take the YA genre. Teenagers are often stereotyped as people who tried to avoid reading (and thus non-readers), but there is a whole genre aimed towards them.

If you book contains elements that can make it appealing to a non-reader whether that is based on story, length, or how compelling it is, you could actually find help from non-readers as beta readers. Say Person A really likes science fiction, but rarely reads anything. He could still be a good beta readers because he is familiar with the genre (at least in other mediums), but he probably couldn't help much with things such as style and flow.

Non-readers can provide a new perspective, but wouldn't be as helpful as a writer for literary elements.

Admittedly, a fellow writer could probably give you the best quality advice, but having a diverse group of beta readers can allow for you see how different types of people view your story.

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It largely depends on the person, but I would worry a "non-reader" might have incorrect expectations for the narrative as a whole. For example, fantasy and science fiction sometimes requires a "learning curve" for its world-building, and someone more accustomed to watching movies may find this tedious in a way a fan of the genre would not.

If I could suggest an alternative, I would recommend using "non-readers" exclusively for your first few chapters. This way, you can test just how effective the "hook" is, especially if you are using someone not accustomed to reading much to start with. If you are successful and you have a particularly enthusiastic "non-reader" who wants to read the whole thing, you can certainly use it as an opportunity for further feedback, but I think a non-reader would be most valuable judging the first chapter's urgency and effectiveness.

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Are “non-readers” useful beta readers?

from Amadeus answer

People that don't read, don't enjoy reading. They don't like that kind of fiction ... it is all bad from their POV because they aren't comfortable reading

If, in spite of that, they are willing to read your work, they may be your target audience.

If you are clearly writing a book for bookworms, don't bother with non readers. But if you are writing for mass appeal, trying to draw in readers that don't normally crack a book, you are writing a best seller; then you need to know what the 'common man' thinks of your writing.

The common man has an exponentially increasing choice of material to read. By necessity one must abandon long tomes unless they are a sole source of required information. These days, a summary is often considered good enough. Non readers will help you with your summary. So at least you can control that increasingly relevant part of your work. Non-readers will show you where you lost them. It will be at an earlier point than bookworms and that has value. Non readers will show you where(not how) to be concise. Where they show interest, you can afford to indulge in sweet detail without boring them. I like that.

Be cautious what you absorb. Non readers will also show you how to be populist, crude, and unworthy of being read by those you actually respect.

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All types of readers are useful. It's a pretty straight-forward set of pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Less likely to silently go along with typical genre devices that require learning curves or previous exposure to grasp
  • Less likely to skim content

Cons:

  • More likely to whine about common issues within your story that most other genre writers can ignore or get away with
  • Less likely to catch bad tropes on a general level

If you take an experienced reader within the genre, they're likely to have an inverse set of "issues", so you should be fine if you have both to choose from.

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