What is Sensitivity Reading and Why do You Need One?
Remember all those Friends episodes where Monica wore a fat suit and everyone made jokes about her weight? Remember the appalling treatment of transgender people in Ace Ventura Pet Detective? More recently, Dr. Seuss’s publisher has made the decision to stop production on six of his books due to racist imagery.
In today’s world, this kind of rhetoric and misrepresentation is guaranteed a flood of backlash (hence, Dr. Seuss being “canceled” many years after his success).
Thankfully, the world has progressed since these creations saw the light of day. Stories are becoming more inclusive and considerate of how we portray minorities and marginalized groups. When writing your novel, a sensitivity reading can be incredibly helpful when it comes to sussing out these issues.
This post should help you understand the importance of a sensitivity reading and why you would benefit from it.
What is sensitivity reading?
Sometimes an author, perhaps hoping to diversify their imaginary universes but may have a limited experience about a certain topic. A sensitivity reading could alert the author about any instances that may not be well-received within a particular marginalized community.
A sensitivity reader is like a focused beta reader. They’re hired to read and assess your manuscript but focusing on areas that could be offensive or degrading. They will point out stereotypes, bias, or anything that may portray them in an insensitive light. They will ensure that the information you’re sharing via your story is accurate with regards to culture, representation, and language.
How can this help?
Sensitivity reading doesn’t aim to censor your writing, but simply to ensure that it’s being fair to all parties portrayed. As writers and human beings, we all have blind spots. This isn’t something to be ashamed of — learning from each other’s experiences is one of the most fulfilling and fascinating parts of literature. However, when trying to be inclusive it’s important to do it in a respectful and honorable way.
A sensitivity reader can help you weed out any problems involving topics of race or ethnicity, sexuality, feminism, disabilities, language, culture, etc. If you’re writing about a character who identifies as LGBTQ+ but you don’t identify as such, you could benefit from the perspective of a reader who has personal experience being LGBTQ+.
What can you expect?
A sensitivity reader will read your manuscript and get back to you with a report on their findings after analyzing your novel. This could come alongside a copy of your manuscript, annotated with inline comments pointing out precisely where these issues lie. Though the process is generally the same all around, the final delivery format will depend on the reader.
A beta reader or editor could essentially do this. However, if they aren’t part of the group in question, they could suffer from the same blind spots that could hurt your novel. It’s best to get advice from someone with firsthand knowledge.
What should a sensitivity reading NOT be?
A sensitivity reading should not be an attempt to censor you or your writing. While the advice of a sensitivity reader could be crucial, the final say is up to you. It’s important to weigh out the reader’s reasoning (and they should always provide reasoning!). Gauge for yourself whether the advice resonates with you or not. A second opinion is always an option, so don’t be afraid to reach out to someone else for help.
A sensitivity reading should always be respectful and not aim at shutting your story down. Sensitivity readers are there to help you scope out problematic areas. They should always back up their claims and use professional language. Never accept rude feedback or feedback that aims to condescend you or your work. Writing is hard, but one of the best parts is all the new perspectives we get to explore. Remember that writing should be fun, but also fair and respectful to everyone involved from writer to reader.