• Crit & Pen

Professional Help: Does Your Novel Need a Sensitivity Reader?

Today, we’re going to talk about getting help. For your novel, that is. We all know that while writing can be a lonely experience, the journey from idea to book is rarely one we undertake on our own. You’ll seek out plenty of readers - friends, peers, and paid professionals - in your quest to write the best story you can. We touched on one growing literary profession in our ‘Envisioning the Other’ article. Sensitivity readers can form an essential part of your novel’s support team, help all of your created characters and cultures thrive, and give you some much-needed practice at accepting critique.

Some of you are asking….

What is a Sensitivity Reader?

A sensitivity reader is someone you can hire to read through your manuscript and flag problematic, or inaccurate, portrayals of other cultures or characters whose identities you don’t share. The details of what services an individual reader will offer varies. At base, it’s their job to identify places where your text deploys stereotypes or overused tropes, demonstrates a lack of research and understanding, or is just plain offensive. Many will offer you advice on how to improve your portrayals, or suggestion, keywords and concepts you should explore in your ongoing research. You will usually hire someone whose background matches a character or culture on whom you know you need advice and guidance, and that’s where their focus and expertise will lie. But some will also flag things outside their experience that feel ‘off’ and suggest you pursue further research or contact other readers.

Two critical things to remember about sensitivity readers:

  1. In almost all cases, individual writers voluntarily hire sensitivity readers to review their manuscripts. They’re not censors, they have no power over you - you’re paying them! It’s usually unwise and self-defeating to fly directly in the face of their recommendations, but no one can stop you. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding sensitivity readers is about “censorship” and “control” and it’s important to dispel those myths.

  2. No one person can speak for an entire culture or group. Your sensitivity reader speaks from experience, but communities aren’t monolithic and elements of your portrayal may still be uncomfortable or problematic for some. Your sensitivity reader’s suggestions are a good place to start, but they’re not a perfect shield against doing harm, or against criticism. Representing folx who are different from you in your fiction is hard work. You will always make mistakes. You will probably offend someone. Learning from those mistakes and course-correcting in future endeavors is a key part of the work.

Why Hire a Sensitivity Reader?

No matter how much research you do, or how good your intentions, you can’t be an expert on someone else’s experiences. There will always be elements of their stories that you mismanage, or misrepresent. A sensitivity reader helps you minimize these errors. That’s important for you, as a writer, because it means your story will be stronger, and have greater appeal to a broader audience. It’s important to your readers, because inaccurate portrayals of their identity and communities can cause a lot of stress and heartache. And it’s important on a macro level, where your depiction of marginalized characters either magnifies or challenges the harmful messages everyone in society is receiving daily.

Do I, Specifically, Need a Sensitivity Reader?

Honestly, if you’re asking that question, the answer is probably “yes”. To break it down a little further:

  • Do any of your characters possess real-world identities that you, yourself, do not: are they of different races, ethnicities, sexualities, religions, gender experiences, nationalities, neurology, or physical ability than you? Are those identities less privileged than yours? If they’re from a different country, is it one that has a history of being the target of western Imperialism? If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to pretty much any of these questions, you probably need a sensitivity reader.

  • Are you setting the story in a real world culture that is not your own? Is that culture one that has been subject to oppression and/or western imperialism? You need a sensitivity reader.

  • Are you incorporating themes of oppression into your story, modeled on racism, homophobia, or transphobia, but you have not been a target of those forces? You need a sensitivity reader.

I’m writing in a secondary world!

  • Have you modeled any cultures in your world off of real world cultures other than your own? Are those cultures indigenous, oppressed, or from somewhere other than western Europe? You probably need a sensitivity reader if you’ve answered ‘yes’, but remember that your unconscious experiences and assumptions are a huge part of your worldbuilding. Be alert and critical of your world, because you have probably unintentionally incorporated other people’s experiences into your fantasy cultures.

  • Are you writing characters who, in our world, would be the targets of racism or colorism? Sensitivity reader.

  • Are you incorporating themes of oppression into your story, modeled on racism, homophobia, or transphobia, but you have not been a target of those forces? You need a sensitivity reader.

  • Will the background of your story, or its conflicts, involve slavery, imperialism, genocide, or cultural extinction? Are you from a community that has never experienced that form of catastrophic violence? Hiring a sensitivity reader may not be essential, but if you’re dedicated to being a conscientious and considered presence in your genre, it would certainly help.

Okay, but Why a Sensitivity Reader, Specifically?

Marginalized people are expected to explain their experiences and advocate for themselves constantly. It’s an exhausting standard that makes it hard for many people to just get through the week. A bisexual teen who has to educate her parents about the homophobia she experiences at school, a black woman who explains the racist micro-aggressions her white friends failed to notice while at a restaurant, a student with ADHD explaining the logic behind their classroom accommodations to their friends, they’re all doing hard work. And it’s completely uncompensated. This unpaid labor is part of the costs extracted from marginalized people by our unfair social structures. You’ve probably benefited from it. The development of sensitivity readers is an acknowledgement of this labor, and its value. Now that this profession exists, being unwilling to pay for labor that you will happily accept when it is free on social media or from your marginalized acquaintances is… problematic, at best.

Personally, I think it’s best never to solicit beta readers. Even if issues of culture and identity aren’t at play, asking someone to read your novel is… a lot of work, and you may not have a full view of everything else they’ve got on their plate. Beta readers should be proactive volunteers, and they should always understand that there are no hard feelings if they need to drop out. And they should never be used in place of sensitivity readers, not unless the very specific conditions of a manuscript and a relationship align to create a unique situation.

There are good reasons to receive advice like this in a professional relationship. Just like a therapist has greater distance from your personal problems, and a better perspective on your mental health than your mother, a sensitivity reader has greater perspective on your manuscript. They don’t know you, and aren’t unconsciously filtering how they think about your text from already knowing your thoughts on a topic, or already believing that you mean well. Since they’re not trying to preserve a personal relationship with you, they won’t hesitate to broach the issues they see in the text. And, because you’ve hired them to do this job, they’re going into the manuscript mentally and emotionally prepared for any of your missteps, even hurtful ones. The sensitivity reader, in this case, also gives you the opportunity to learn and process your unconscious bias out of the sight of your friends who might be hurt by it. Spare your friends and betas a heart attack, and safeguard those relationships.

Seek professional help.


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