Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why You Need Beta Readers (Feat. Women of Cyberpunk)

It’s been a while since I set my high-heeled foot in a college classroom. But from what I remember,  the laws of physics provide boundaries to human capabilities, right? That’s why I was so baffled by Lucy, the film in which Scarlett Johansson's character absorbs a drug that allows her to use a hundred percent of her brain. Without giving too much away, I’ll say this: Lucy has an interesting premise and incredible visual effects, but the science is a hot mess. (If you don’t care about spoilers, read this from
This is one screenplay that needed more beta readers and a thick red pen.
What are beta readers, you ask? Beta readers are volunteer test subjects for your drafts. They find plot holes, suggest changes in the story, point out things you can’t see for yourself, and generally let you know when something doesn’t work (and when it does). They tell the truth about your writing. They see the big picture because, unlike you as the writer, their minds aren’t overflowing with character sketches and plot outlines.

Big Hero 6
You cannot do this for your own drafts. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read a thousand books in your genre or if you’ve memorized every major style guide in the English language. You’re the writer, NOT THE READER—and these are two very different roles.
There was a time when I thought I could edit anything, even my own work. I created my first newsletter at the ripe old age of ten(ish) after a trip to the Fort Worth Japanese Gardens with my grandparents. In high school and college I annoyed my peers by editing the heck out of their articles, and now I do the same thing with novelists as an associate editor for Henery Press.

When I’m in the zone, my eyes catch missing apostrophes, errant quotation marks, word clutter, main character likeability problems, and plot issues like nobody’s business. Words run in my caffeinated blood.
Blade Runner

Yep, I’m a trained editor—a professional. But here’s the deal: I STILL CAN’T DO THIS FOR MY OWN WRITING. When it comes to my own stuff, I’m blind. And stubborn. Sometimes, very VERY stubborn. (Should I delete the vague adverb, very? Of course I should. But I’m leaving it there. Twice even. Why? Because I want to. Because I’m the writer, darn it…and you can’t stop me.)

Ghost in the Shell

Even after the eighth draft or so, I still hold onto that-which-I-should-delete (backstory, excess character reflection, adverbs) and fail to expound on that-which-I-should-include (worldbuilding, character emotion, descriptions).
I do things in my own writing that I tell other writers to avoid, unaware that I’m committing the same literary sin until someone calls me out on it.

The Matrix
Fortunately, I have some amazing beta readers. These brave souls provide informed ideas to make my imaginary biotech believable, tell me I'm writing like a girl (when it should be a guy's POV), and mediate for characters I'm tempted to kill. (I'm no George R.R. Martin, but I like a high body count. Just sayin'.) A big thank you for my beta readers—I couldn't do it without you!
Okay, writers: Go find yourself some beta readers. And bonus points if you decide to watch this short scene from Lucy, which includes—of all things—A RED PEN. No joke.


  1. It's amazing what I cannot see. My most frequent response when looking over one of my beta-readers notes is, "DUH. Why didn't I think of that?"

  2. Me too, Liv! Especially the Repeated Words. Same big word, two sentences in a row? How can I MISS IT?

  3. Anna, my head's been stuck in the editing cave and getting my manuscript ready for this very process. Last night I emailed copies to two betas and today, in writing an update for my blog, I realized I needed to know more. Which brought me here. I'm just reading your article and think it's awesome that my answer right here on our writers' blog! Thank you. This gives me more insight in to a process I'm entering for the first time. Now I won't feel so bad when the notes start rolling in. Oh wait. They already did!

    Great post! Thank you!

    ~ Olivia J. Herrell

  4. P.S. I love your examples and had wavered on whether to see Lucy or not. I love Scarlett Johansson and the premise sounded intriguing, but heard such bad reviews that I never did. Think I will now...

    ~ Olivia

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