How Sensitivity Readers Can Help Your Book

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“Sensitivity reader” sounds like something concocted by a Bay Area HR department or an anti-Fox News security system. In reality, this is a type of beta readers—those invaluable, brave souls who read your early drafts. Sensitivity readers look specifically for problematic wording, stereotypes, representation, cultural mix-ups, insensitivities, and biases. 

We can’t all be experts in every topic. If you have characters who are part of groups you don’t belong to, then you may need a sensitivity reader to ensure that you are portraying those characters as accurately as possible. For instance, if you identify as straight and have a main character who is gay, you want to make sure you’re writing that character as sensitively and realistically as possible. You don’t have the lived experience of a gay person, so you will most likely be unaware of certain realities. A sensitivity reader can help you flesh out this character.

Given the job description, it’s no wonder sensitivity readers spark some controversy, namely, the line between diversity and self-censorship. Still, they can be a valuable resource for the self-publishing author. 

Are sensitivity readers necessary? 

Representation is a complex issue. Overall, the literary world has made a push for more diversity, but some would question whether it’s every author’s duty to treat diversity as a required checklist entry.

Perhaps you could look at a sensitivity reader’s services like this: Perpetuated stereotypes encourage ignorance and inhibit diversity, and the same derivative tropes make for predictable, mediocre writing. Astute readers want authenticity. When an author is writing about something they don’t know, there’s often a false note, or something’s clearly off, and they get an internet spanking before the book’s even out. A more cynical take is that a sensitivity reader is an insurance policy against your book getting “canceled.” The goal is to make your book a success, so you don’t want to unintentionally insult a community by writing a character in an insensitive way.

Sensitivity readers can catch oversights that may have larger story ramifications. In 2019, the unreleased YA novel Blood Heir caused an internet stir because of how its author allegedly handled slavery and human trafficking. After much drama, the publisher hired additional sensitivity readers, and there were some revisions. Eventually, Blood Heir became a successful trilogy. 

Recruiting a sensitivity reader

You can find sensitivity readers in the way you find editors or beta readers. Many sites offering authors' services will have sensitivity readers. Their prices can vary; some charge by the hour, others per novel. All of this should be in a contract. Some traits to look for are:

  • A match for your needs 
  • A sensitivity reader isn’t one-size-fits-all. They can have different specialties and niches, such as LGBTQ+ issues, various cultures, and gender studies.  

  • Respect for a deadline 
  • A good turnaround time is usually two weeks to a month. To avoid misunderstandings, discuss it ahead of time. 

  • Knowledge of the publishing world
  • They don’t need to be an author, but some know-how is important for communication.

    Working with your sensitivity reader

    Once your contract is finalized and the reader has evaluated your book, you will receive feedback. It is important to put away your preconceptions and listen for new perspectives, accidental faux pas, and criticism. Don’t look at this as a quick fix; instead, see how the feedback affects your novel as a whole, then determine what you can do to improve your work. It might involve more research, some plot tweaks, or a few nitpicked details. However, the finished product will be a more accurate and inclusive book.

    While some people might call it censoring, what if, by listening with an open mind, you get an even better idea for your book? After all, you want your story to be the best it can possibly be, and a sensitivity reader can help improve the finished product.

    No one knows everything. A sensitivity reader can give you insight into areas you don’t know much about, but perhaps one isn’t for you. At the very least, it's another pair of eyes, and no book becomes a masterpiece without edits, planning, and rewrites.

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