Sensitivity readers: do you need one?

What is a “sensitivity reader” and how do you know if you need one? Do they provide a function outside of editing? What makes a sensitivity reader different from a beta reader?

As writers, we often have casts of characters that are vastly different from ourselves. It is important to write about a diverse population otherwise our characters just become reflections of our own experiences, identity, culture, sexuality and many other factors that could limit our writing.

However, as recent events have shown and readers are demanding more diversity in stories, how do writers deal with writing from points of view that are so vastly different from their own experience?

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Firstly, the writer must do their research. Proper research, including talking to people from the community you are writing about, is the first thing to be done. This will give the writer a clear understanding of the points of view and understanding of that community or the backgrounds of characters. Research will also give you a history: why are certain cultures portrayed that way how do you avoid unnecessary clichés?

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Research happens while you are writing. But what happens once you’ve written your novel and you’re not sure if what you’ve written may cause offence?

This is where sensitivity readers may be helpful.

A sensitivity reader, an expert reader from that background you want to find out about, who is able to tell you about any offence you may have, inadvertently, caused.

But it is a fine line to tread.

Some stories demand a racist, homophobic, transphobic or similar, character. It might be historically accurate to portray the character as holding those views. What is crucial is that it is made clear it is the character who holds those views and not the author. Carefully crafted words will make this clear to your readers and, surely, that’s what your editor is for?

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The role of the sensitivity reader is more than a little controversial. Are they just there for political correctness and do they stifle creativity and truth? If your book is edited, surely that should be enough, right?

Well, yes, an editor should be noticing language that may cause offence or could land you, as a writer, in hot water. And, what you want to say as a writer is important. If you want to portray characters as holding certain views, go ahead, say it. After all, we learn about ourselves through the characters that you write.

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You’ve decided that you want to find a sensitivity reader. You are a white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual male writer but your character is a black, working-class, trans female and you have no experience in this.

Does your sensitivity reader need to fit all of these?

Ideally, yes. But, like so much in writing and editing, it all depends. It would be very difficult, or take a huge amount of time, to find someone who fits the bill exactly.

So, consider, what is it in your writing that you think might cause offence? Taking the example above, have you got gaps in your research about the racism faced by the character but you are fairly confident you have portrayed a trans female character well because of you have interviews someone with that experience. Then you probably want to find an appropriate sensitivity reader.

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How do you do that? If you belong to a writing group, or a virtual community of writers, reaching out will be a start. Otherwise, talk to your editor: they have a lot of connections and are bound to know someone.

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It might be that you know other writers or beta readers who could also support you specifically around sensitivity and diversity issues. Rather than asking your beta readers for general feedback around the plot and construction of your novel, approach specific readers and ask them to keep your concerns in mind as they read. Sensitivity reading doesn’t require special skills, just an understanding of the issues you are raising.

Finally, remember, whether you choose to use a sensitivity reader or not, your stories should be containing a diverse cast of characters. Have the confidence to write well researched stories from perspectives other than your own, have the confidence in your editor and write characters that teach readers.

I would welcome all comments on the use of sensitivity readers. Have you used one? Are you one? Did you choose to not use one? I’d love to hear your experiences.

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Fiction editor and proofreader.

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