Columns > Published on February 10th, 2023

Fostering Inclusivity: Sensitivity Readings and Content Warnings

Image via Fernando Arcos

Today I want to talk about two ways you can make your writing more inclusive. They're things you might not even think about, but your readers will definitely notice and appreciate when done well. Both can be summed up in this quote from Alan Baxter:

You should always consider whether a story is yours to tell, but we want diversity in our fiction, we want to see our world reflected. Doing that without harm is the trick.

Sensitivity Reading

Say you have a character who practices a religion you are not familiar with, or one who's from a country with cultural differences from your own. Conducting research is great, but Google doesn’t always have the best results. The ideal solution is to consult someone with direct, lived experience or knowledge of the topic. Friends, beta readers, and writing groups are all great places to ask for advice. Sensitivity readers can also be hired to look over your work. An extra set of eyes is never a bad thing!

As a neurodivergent individual, and a member of the LGBT community, my experiences have led me to be hyperaware of cure narratives—stories where a character's disability or sexuality is seen as a weakness to be cured, with the story building to their "triumph" overcoming it. It's uncomfortable and alienating from a reader's perspective, and overall not a great narrative device. But if you're someone who's able-bodied, or cisgender, it's unlikely to be something you think about much. 

Not only are sensitivity readings a good tool for avoiding harmful misconceptions and perpetuating stereotypes, they can also be useful to help the flow of a story, as discussed in this Tumblr post on writing a character who uses sign language:

…once the signing has been established it can just be treated like ‘said’. You can add little things for emphasis though, like how fast or flippant a sign is given, also a lot of our “punctuation” is in facial expressions, so wild looks [are] kind of normal. Also messing up signs and just.. pushing them aside. Like, [if] you mess up a fingerspell and just take both hands and shove the air in front of you to your side, people who sign eventually end up doing this for other things, like a ‘forget it’ motion. Body language for someone who signs is a lot more animated than someone who speaks, as we use our upper body a lot in our conversations, so the act of “signing” is more than just hand signals.

Great fiction lets us lose ourselves in the joy of a narrative. On the flipside, inaccuracies can be jarring. Often these details just don’t occur to us, but if you’re someone who does use sign language, you’d immediately pick up on the previously mentioned nuances (or lack thereof). It can even allow for a deeper connection with the story for the reader—and what author doesn't want that? Connecting with community is one of the best parts of writing, in my opinion.

Of course, this is just an example, but the principle can be applied to many things. Last year I wanted to have a territory acknowledgement at the end of my novella, so I reached out to friends, who kindly offered advice on clarity and inclusivity. I'm very grateful for their time and assistance. 

Content Warnings

The other tool I want to cover is the content warning, sometimes referred to as a trigger warning (although content is more accurate and appropriate). Essentially, they sum up the subject matter that could be potentially traumatic for the reader. "This story contains themes of sexual assault," for example. They're similar to the viewer discretion warnings on TV shows, or age rating on movies and video games. They simply lay out what themes are included as a general guideline.

Content warnings have been a bit of a hot topic among the writing community, especially in horror—stories involving intense situations, terrifying monsters (and equally terrifying people) are commonplace. On one side there's the argument that because these elements are expected, warnings aren't necessary—you "know what you're getting into", so to speak. Putting aside plot twists and shocking reveals, this is a really one-dimensional way of looking at it. Every reader is different, and thus the way they respond to a story will be different. Using content warnings should be a basic consideration to create a comfortable experience for everyone. 

Another argument comes down to the content warnings themselves being spoilers for the book—but this is an easy problem to solve, and one authors have been repeatedly solving with no issue for quite a while! You can put them in the back of your book. Not only does this make them optional for those who don't wish to view them, but it avoids "spoiling" the story. A simple "check the back pages for content warnings" doesn't break up the TOC, if that's a concern. An alternative is to put the list on your author website, freely available for readers to check. A small kindness like this can go a long way. 

If you're struggling to come up with an all-encompassing list of potential warnings, that's another reason sensitivity readers can be useful. You can read and re-read your own work and still miss things. Fears and trauma are as individual as we are. I often say that my "gross meter" is broken, because while people melting and other gory things don't particularly bother me, they can be a bit much for others. There's nothing wrong with that.

So the next time you're revising a story, try to take a step back and look at it from a different perspective. As Alan said, "Horror is meant to be confronting. That doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors. If we can create whatever we want and protect people with trauma as well, why the fuck wouldn’t we?" 

Get ​Inside Out by Lord Gislason at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Lor Gislason is a horror writer from Vancouver Island who focuses on body horror and film analysis from an autistic perspective. Their work has appeared in Horror Obsessive, Hear Us Scream, and Lost in Cult. Their first novella, Inside Out, is available from Darklit Press.

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