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Sensitivity readers in a nutshell

Illustration of a middle-eastern woman in front of a laptop.

What are sensitivity readers?

Sensitivity readers are proofreaders who check a book or manuscript for sensitive topics. A reader may specialize in a particular subject, but as an author you can also call upon sensitivity readers to find out whether your work includes contentious subjects or connotations that you may not have noticed. They can also be consulted if you want to write about subjects of which you have little experience. (Source: Schrijvenonline)

Sensitivity readers are often called upon when authors write about identities or events that fall outside their own lived experience, in other words things they have not been through themselves or seen from the inside. After all, it’s important to represent a range of different perspectives or voices, but not everyone necessarily has enough personal involvement to be able to write about every possible subject. Sensitivity readers first came to public attention in 2016, when Keira Drake published a novel called The Continent. Critics observed that the book contained insulting stereotypes of Native Americans and Asians. Drake rewrote her book with the help of sensitivity readers. Jodi Picoult made use of a sensitivity reader when she was writing her novel Small Great Things, about a black midwife who has to deal with white supremacy.

Why would you engage a sensitivity reader?

Hiring a sensitivity reader can be an enormous help if you think there are aspects of your book that might be taken the wrong way, or if you know you are discussing subjects that fall outside your comfort zone or your own personal experience. Most of the work of sensitivity readers consists of spotting incomplete or stereotypical representation that an author may perhaps have failed to notice. Authors sometimes regard the use of a sensitivity reader as a way to make their book ‘cancel-proof’. But this is about more than warding off every possible criticism. Engaging help and carrying out research contributes to the writing of an accurate and authentic storyline, with credible characters. It means being aware of the images you are creating and adding to the world, and the ways in which those images will circulate worldwide. Will readers be able to recognize themselves in your work? Are you illuminating all aspects of a person’s identity, or might you unconsciously be contributing to a stereotype?

The fact that the staffs of publishing houses are far from diverse is nothing new. Not only is the industry predominantly white, the stories it publishes have mainly white characters. Fortunately there are more and more initiatives aimed at structurally anchoring diversity in books and the sector that produces them, making them places where all readers recognize themselves, so that books can be truly inclusive. Nevertheless it is clear that although more books about diversity are being published (whether it’s a matter of gender diversity, ethnic diversity or other aspects), the majority are still written by white authors. This means that authors are often groping in the dark when writing about a culture or a perspective that falls outside their own experience. A sensitivity reader can help. It goes without saying that a sensitivity reader will give feedback that may well demand profound changes to the core of the story and to the characters. So don’t delay too long in seeking advice.

A real-life example

Salt & Sage is an example of a consultancy that authors and publishers can call upon if they want to engage a sensitivity reader. Its website features countless profiles of readers with the most diverse forms of expertise: biracial experience, death of a parent, Muslim, dyslexia, you name it.

The British organization Inclusive Minds is another consultancy for publishers who want to ask advice concerning specific titles or even their entire list.

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