‘Sensitivity reader’ is an often misunderstood term in the literary world, and something that many people are unsure whether they need.
If you’re not sure what a sensitivity read is, or what a sensitivity reader does, or you’re conflicted about their role in publishing, then read on.
In this guide we will be exploring:
● sensitivity reading and the debates in favour and against this service
● steps to deciding if it’s right for you
● and tips for finding and working with readers appropriate to your needs if you so choose
What Is A Sensitivity Reader?
A sensitivity reader is a professional who looks at unpublished manuscripts primarily through the lens of authenticity, cultural sensitivity and better representation of marginalised groups. This doesn’t just mean race or disability, it may include topics such as eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness, gender transition, or chronic illness.
The sensitivity readers, who all have first-hand experience with such challenges, then provide feedback to the author.
Because of the nature of children’s literature and the fact that many touch upon sensitive topics, sensitivity readers are often used to read middle grade fiction, young adult fiction, and other genres such as historical fiction and science fiction. Diverse books can traverse all genres, in fact, they should, so it’s important that everyone from early readers to marginalised groups see themselves represented fairly and accurately in all books.
They will likely be informed by any relevant lived experience details in the manuscript but will also be a match based on familiarity with the genre of the text.
They can in some ways be considered a specialist subset of beta readers, in that they review your work and offer insight to strengthen the content of your writing. Their reflections are often informed by experiences of discrimination and rely on using emotional labour to communicate feedback on experiences relating to marginalisation.
Thus sensitivity reading is considered a skilled service and should be treated as such. This is why it’s important to pay your sensitivity readers, much like you would if you wanted to run your crime thriller past a legal professional or private investigator to check for authenticity.
What Do Sensitivity Readers Do?
A sensitivity reader essentially reads through an unpublished manuscript; this could be a full novel, an article, a series of short stories etc, that they have not actively engaged with as customers or readers themselves.
They read with an editorial eye to provide constructive feedback framed by questions of mis-representation. Their feedback may be on descriptive terms, behaviours of characters, or descriptions of structures or the restrictions they live within.
They are informed by experience with literature, perhaps as a reader, writer or editor, but also their lived experience, as well as shared experiences and discussions within their networks. These networks could be made up of friends, family and/or larger social/political groups.
The ultimate intention of working with a sensitivity reader is to pursue accurate representations and an inclusive reader experience by creating characters for people who identify in similar ways to the character, and not just for people who might find that character interesting.
Examples Of What A Sensitivity Reader Does
Sensitivity readers can pick up on many things, such as strange descriptions of clothes, food, or hairstyles from a particular culture.
So if, for example, you saw a hairstyle you liked and wanted to feature a character wearing it, a sensitivity reader could tell you the name of the hairstyle – how it’s described and the actions a person wearing it may naturally undertake as part of your story.
They might identify behaviours of a character that may be deemed unlikely when contextualised from a person in a marginalised group, e.g. women jogging at night with headphones on, mental health struggles being resolved overnight etc. Essentially details within a manuscript that might pull a reader out of their suspended disbelief (at best); or that a reader might find offensive or triggering (at worst).
These sorts of details that contribute to a feeling of misrepresentation can derail an experience and become a fixation of readers- and those discussing a manuscript. The last thing an author wants is for their novel to be dismissed, not for the writing or themes, but because of inaccuracies with characters and cultures.
So if in some instances, the details flagged are offensive and hurtful, perpetuating harmful stereotypes or platforming dangerous behaviours, then this work with a sensitivity reader could provide the author with an opportunity to make changes that can prevent the author from causing pain, and receiving criticism from readers after publication.
That said, as with all feedback solicited for unpublished manuscripts, it is up to the author to decide what they will and will not incorporate into their final work. But it is worth noting that this step is growing in popularity as a way to support diversifying content in publishing while providing more authentic and sensitive representations.
How To Decide If You Need A Sensitivity Reader
Are you a writer who wants to craft a diverse world that’s dynamic and engaging but features realities outside your lived experience?
Is your work something you have constructed primarily through your imagination or observations without intimate insight through lived experience?
If these imagined constructions are grounded in our world, with the privileges and prejudices faced by real people, describing the experiences of diverse characters from marginalised groups, you might want to consider working with a sensitivity reader.
And if you’re still not sure, ask yourself this:
If you were writing about nuclear energy in any great detail, but have never studied science in your life, would you want to run a few things past a scientist first?
You would? Great!
Then that’s no different to asking people from certain backgrounds and minorities to confirm that your depiction of them is accurate.
What’s The Difference Between A Sensitivity Reader And An Editor?
So I hear you say, ‘provision of feedback on the quality of writing, that’s what editors are for!’ and you would be right, but not all authors work with editors, and not all editors provide sensitivity reading. This is in part due to an editor’s more general, rather than specialised, review of the work, and partly due to the lack of diverse representation in publishing.
Some pushback against sensitivity readers is that this service can be seen as outsourcing diversity, as a bandaid to the larger issues with the sector workforce.
Some are frustrated that editors from diverse backgrounds are being encouraged into more precarious work and required to use lived experiences of trauma and discrimination as part of their professional practice. While others celebrate this as a meaningful way to acknowledge and value knowledge gained through lived experiences and note that if the practice becomes more mainstream it will be integrated with more security into the publishing industry.
For an author considering working with a sensitivity reader, it would be worth considering the feedback type your existing editor (if you have one, or beta readers if you go down this route) provides and if you believe they already offer this service.
If not, a sensitivity reader could support you with a better representation of diverse characters.
Sensitivity Readers vs Censorship
For some authors, the idea of a sensitivity reader feels uncomfortably close to censorship, and for some readers, the use of sensitivity readers brings concerns about disguising harmful views held by authors through quick fixes.
In both instances, this is a question of trust; trust from an author that a sensitivity reader will respect their work and only provide necessary and useful edits; and trust from readers that publishers won’t facilitate the exploitation of marginalised stories by authors who clearly intend harm.
Trust is not something that can be easily created, it requires nurturing. For authors, meet with your sensitivity reader and create good channels of communication, explaining what sort of feedback you are looking for (e.g. general tone, specific elements, language review). Work towards a relationship of trust and mutual respect and select a reader that works for you and your style.
And as an industry, we need to work to ensure that sensitivity readers are used ethically, in the pursuit of an inclusive industry and content that provides meaning for people regardless of their lived experiences.
It’s hard to know if you are on the right track when writing about marginalised experiences, even if you too share experiences of marginalisation of some sort. But if you are questioning your knowledge or ability to do a story justice – ask yourself whether you are the right person to tell this story, and seek help from someone who understands it better.
Working With Sensitivity Readers: Tips
If you’ve decided that sensitivity readers seem like a good idea, here are a few things to bear in mind:
Pick Your Sensitivity Reader Well
As with beta readers, find someone experienced in reading and editing manuscripts. Someone removed enough from you personally to provide honest feedback without the worry of social repercussions.
Sometimes we can get beta testers who are friends and family to review our writing, but sensitivity reading asks the reader to provide concise and constructive criticism on topics that might cause you offence. So it is best to keep the professional and the personal separate in this case.
Trust And Experience Are Key
Work with someone whose experience and knowledge are as close to the identity of the person you are trying to represent as possible.
For instance, a shared age range, gender, national and racial/ethnic identity – these intersections matter and change what might be perceived as authentic in each situation. E.g. an Afro-Caribbean man is unlikely to be able to provide intimate insight into the experiences of a teenage Nigerian girl, and certainly not as well as a Nigerian woman might.
Engage sensitivity readers as early as possible.
A lot of headaches can be avoided if you run outlines and character descriptions past sensitivity readers before completing a full manuscript based on elements that may have crucial misunderstandings or misrepresentations within them. Start the conversation early and be open to adapting the foundations of the work, especially if the elements you seek clarity on and support with are central to your narrative.
The More The Merrier
You can work with multiple readers if you want more than one opinion, and if you want more assurances that you have done due diligence in your attempt to do a character justice and provide a fair representation of a complex experience.
Be Prepared For Feedback
Be prepared to have reactions to the edits and suggestions.
Try not to perceive this as a personal criticism, judgement or accusation. Understand that the reader is responding to the manuscript with fresh eyes for a particular purpose.
Take time for your emotional response and then decide which elements of the feedback you would like to incorporate into the final text. Remember that this process provides an opportunity to make changes, and is a means of seeking information and insight- but ultimately the author is the author and what you write needs to feel right to you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a quick guide to some of the most asked questions about sensitivity readers:
What Is A Sensitivity Reader?
A sensitivity reader is a professional who looks at unpublished manuscripts primarily through the lens of authenticity, cultural sensitivity and better representation of marginalised groups. They then provide feedback to the author.
They are often informed by their relevant lived experiences of discrimination and marginalisation, and so this is a specialised service and should be paid for.
What Is A Beta Reader?
A beta reader, like a sensitivity reader, is someone who provides constructive feedback on an unpublished manuscript; they focus on providing insight into the perspective of the average or target reader.
Beta readers can be engaged at different levels of professionalism, and can include friends and family, whereas sensitivity readers should be engaged exclusively as a professional service to avoid emotional exploitation or interpersonal complications that can arise from providing constructive criticism around representations of marginalised identities.
Are Sensitivity Readers Necessary?
They aren’t necessary for everyone, but if you are worried about misrepresenting marginalised groups in your writing and want to write for people who are similar to the people you describe, it’s important. You are not just writing about these people for others who find them interesting, but describing people whose lives you haven’t lived; therefore you want readers who are like your characters to feel fairly represented.
Is Sensitivity Reading About Censorship?
Sensitivity readers provide feedback within the parameters of better representation of marginalised identities, but the feedback they provide is optional for the author and not a mandate.
It is often a provider of insight, context and information that can be used to enrich the author’s existing and future manuscripts.
Why allow misrepresentation or inaccuracies to taint your work when they can be easily checked at the beginning of your writing journey?
Sensitivity Readers Are Useful For Every Writer
Hopefully, you now have some deeper insight into sensitivity reading and can decide if it is a service that you might like to pursue.
But whether or not you decide to use a sensitivity reader, it is good practice to consider the representations in your manuscripts and how these might be received by contemporary audiences.
Working towards better representation doesn’t mean getting rid of problematic and complicated characters, but it encourages this action to be intentional and to serve a narrative purpose without unintentionally replicating harmful stereotypes.
Perhaps this is work that you can do by yourself, or with supportive resources. Perhaps your editors or beta readers will support this practice. But maybe this could be the job for a sensitivity reader.
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