Sensitivity Readers: Something to Think About

Saturday, March 04, 2017
I haven’t seen much said about sensitivity readers in terms of those of us who write for adults. That said, with the buzz going on in the children’s writing community, I suspect it is only a matter of time.

A sensitivity reader comes into play any time you write outside of your “group.” This can mean your racial group, such as if I wrote a book on Japanese Americans, your religion, if my character was Shinto, your region, if I set the book in New York City, or even your gender and sexual orientation, if my character were male, gay or trans.

The sensitivity reader’s job is to make certain that you, the outsider to whatever group you are writing about, does not commit a faux pas in regard to said group. The kinds of faux pas they can help you avoid are wide and varied but generally unintentional because most of us don’t set out to offend.

The problem is that bias can be sneaky. Our work can sometimes show unintentional biases that we aren’t aware we hold. This can come out in a variety of ways:

  • Where certain characters live. Do minority characters only live in “the city”? And what are the communities like? Readers look for crime free white flight enclaves as well as crime ridden minority neighborhoods.
  • The jobs they hold. Do your minority characters have stereotypical jobs? Or are you trying too hard in the other direction? Even if it seems like every teen you know wants to be a celebrity, be careful what hopes and dreams you assign to which characters.
  • Which characters date each other. One of the problems sensitivity readers see even in this day and age is the master-slave “romance.” Al I have to say about that is . . . really? Seriously? Yuck. But avoiding similar problems can also mean not having your female lead date someone of another race just to cause a stir. Or thinking of him as a “bad boy.
  • How various characters speak. Another common problem is minority characters who only speak ethnic jargon. If you need to use the Urban Dictionary to write your dialogue, you are probably doing something wrong.

Setting up a science fiction or fantasy world that does not and has never existed isn't enough to avoid this issue. You still might be called on to work with a sensitivity reader lest your characters seem to be based on real, existing groups.

Sometimes a sensitivity reader is part of the publisher’s staff. But if you are considering self-publishing you may need to employ a reader of your own. Fortunately, Writer in the Margins can help. This organization is dedicated to helping stories from outside the main stream make their way into reader’s hands. Part of this is maintaining a database of readers. The database includes their name, qualifications, contact information and specialties.

For more on this topic, check out the following:
Overcoming Bias: Authors and Editors Discuss Sensitivity Bias
Debut Author lessons: Sensitivity readers and why I pulled a project.

I’ve never had to employ a sensitivity reader but my educational books are all run past a “content expert.” This person looks for both sins of omission and commission concerning a wide range of issues including bias. Given the topics I write about, I may one day soon be working with someone who holds this particular title.

To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.
Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.


Margo Dill said...

Great post, Sue. I didn't know there was a group to help with this.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I'm with Margo. I didn't know there was such a group, and I also have never heard the term "sensitivity reader," but it makes sense. I've been working on getting a sensitivity reader to help me with my WIP, but had no idea they had an official term.

Thanks. I hope writers of books (as well as screenwriters) will consider these sensitivity issues.

Sara Codair said...

I recently had a dystopian/fantasy short story published in which the protagonist was a trans women. After going through a few rounds of edits with the zine's editor, they had a sensitivity reader look over the story and make some suggestions. We had an interesting discussion about gender identity, and as a result, I made a few adjustments to the characters back story, the world, and made her status as a transperson less central to the plot. The story was stronger for it, but as an emerging writer, I wouldn't have had the resource to pay a sensitivity reader myself. While I think it is a great idea, I feel it should be the publisher's responsibility/financial burden, not the writers. Had I had to pay for it, or had the reader come in any earlier in the process, it would not have worked out so.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I know one of the biggest problems that some writers have is that a sensitivity reader is like another layer of editing. They have to be willing to work from the comments just as they would from an editor. I'm glad to hear that you created such a positive experience!

Mary Horner said...

Good advice, Sue, I'm going to check out the links!

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