Sensitivity Readers? Sensitivity Readers!
I was revising Shieldrunner Pirates Book 3 last month and I forgot to write a blog post! My apologies. This post is long and it includes a new feature: A slightly sing-songy audio version is available on my website.
Today I'm talking about a (relatively) new service for us writers, called "sensitivity reading," because I haven't seen many articles on it from an author's point of view. Sensitivity readers politely tell people like me if our fiction propagates hurtful and untrue clichés, thereby saving us from making an ass of ourselves in print. Last month I paid for sensitivity reading for the first time, and I am so glad I did. Yes, as with all consultative services, you should pay sensitivity readers if you want a timely and professional response.
In my case, I hired a sensitivity reader because I want to write about a protagonist whose racial experience is radically different than mine [Note: edited in text only, for clarification. See why I need professional help?]. I am very white. Unfortunately, white writers tend to flatten characters of color and disabled characters into repetitive, one-note people who only care about whatever differentiates them from the author (Nishi, Matias, & Montoya, 2014; Pickens, T. A., 2017; and I would cite more but there are hundreds of literature teachers' case studies on similar topics and I don't want to deal with them today). Since that's the case, sensitivity readers often check for basic character construction issues: Does the character have a multidimensional personality? Are her motivations realistic and interesting? We know we must address this with all characters, but knowing it and doing it are, of course, different things.
And then, because I'm a bad student of history, I was very grateful that my reader considered the character's background in historical and political contexts. Readers will absolutely compare events in your story to historical events. It's delightful to know what comparisons they'll make, so I can write accordingly!
Note that I didn't list any specific feedback I received. Partly that's because traditional publishing is unpredictable and ideas are cheap. It's entirely possible that this story will never appear in bookstores. But also, I want to emphasize that you do not have to tell anybody that you hired a sensitivity reader, or what their feedback was, just as you do not have to tell people that you had beta readers, copyediting, etc. As with all writing processes, you can be as private or as public as you want to be.
Some caveats: A sensitivity reader is one person. That person cannot speak for the entire group of people to whom they belong. Also, you are the one responsible for how you respond to their feedback. Even if you follow all their recommendations, someone may still read your work and criticize how you wrote a character who's different from you. This is normal. Your options are either to get a wider sample of readers from the character's group and incorporate all their feedback, or tough it! You will not please every reader. That is also normal.
Still, a sensitivity reading might prevent you from hurting your fans, improve your writing, and keep you out from under a Twitter dogpile. If you can afford to pay the reader for their time, I highly recommend hiring one!
- Kowal, M. R. (2016). Debut author lessons: Sensitivity readers and why I pulled a project. maryrobinettekowal.com
- Nishi, N. W., Matias, C. E., & Montoya, R. (2014). Exposing the white avatar: projections, justifications, and the ever-evolving American racism. Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 21(5), pp. 459-473.
- Pickens, T. A. (2017). Satire, scholarship, and sanity: Or how to make mad professors. In Kerschbaum, S. L., Eisenman, L. T., & Jones, J. M. Negotiating disability: Disclosure and higher education pp. 243-254. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
- Shapiro, L. (2018). What the job of a sensitivity reader is really like. Vulture.com.
- Sylvester, N. (2017). What a sensitivity reader is (and isn't) and how to hire one. Writer Unboxed.