What Are Sensitivity Readers and Do You Need One?

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The self-publishing industry can be tough to navigate, especially for emerging authors just starting to learn the ropes. They are responsible for everything, but the majority of them can’t handle the various roles that self-publishing demands. From editing and proofreading to book cover design and marketing, most indie authors choose to hire a team of professional book publishing services—it’s either that or do everything by themselves (which we don’t recommend). 

One of the services you may not have heard of but many authors are outsourcing is sensitivity reading.  

What are sensitivity readers?

Sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers. Beta readers go through an unpublished manuscript and share their impressions, opinions, and insights to help the author craft a more polished and refined story. 

Sensitivity readers are beta readers who specifically hone in on any potentially offensive material or issues with representation and stereotypes that may exist in a manuscript and that the author wants to eliminate. Basically, they offer insight into a specific community or minority the writer may not be familiar enough with and help them navigate that world with sensitivity and knowledge. They are there to point out a lack of diversity or cultural misrepresentations and any unconscious bias that might have slipped into the prose and could detract from the story. 

What service does a sensitivity reader provide?

Sensitivity readers offer an important service to authors writing about a community they don’t belong to or a subject matter they don’t know all that well. For example, if you’re writing about a character whose ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or religious belief is different from yours, a sensitivity reader will make sure there are no tropes or representations that are inaccurate or potentially offensive to the people you’re writing about. After reading a manuscript, they will prepare a report with notes on any issues they may have found and suggestions on how to fix them. 

A sensitivity reader should have qualifications beyond belonging to a particular community although that is the most important one. They should also love to read, have some personal similarities to your character or story, and understand that they are simply offering an opinion, not censoring your work. Of course, a background in editing or literature is a plus. Just as with beta readers, keep in mind that your sensitivity reader has their own tastes, preferences, and biases, and you aren’t required to implement their suggestions—you can decide what works for your story.

Should you hire a sensitivity reader? 

If you want to get all the details right about a world or a community you’re writing about (especially if you’re not part of that community), you should probably hire more than one sensitivity reader to go over your manuscript and give you feedback. Keep in mind that the readers can only speak from their own experiences within the community, so don’t expect them to be able to address all your questions and doubts, but do take their opinions seriously. Working with multiple sensitivity readers helps you get a more objective view from the community as you can look at the elements that all or most of them identify.

Sensitivity readers are relatively new in the publishing industry, but you can usually find them on social media and freelance job platforms. If you’re looking for traditional developmental editing, check out our big-picture editing services for authors.  

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