Columns > Published on January 10th, 2020

Should I Use A Sensitivity Reader?

Maybe you’ve heard a little bit about sensitivity readers. Maybe you’ve heard they’re the PC Police. Maybe you’ve heard that they help bring more diversity to books. Maybe you’ve heard they’re expensive. Maybe you’ve heard they’re worth the price. Maybe you’ve heard horror stories, maybe heroic stories.

The real question for writers isn’t whether or not someone else used a sensitivity reader. It’s whether YOU should use one.

What Is A Sensitivity Reader?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. It’s like asking how much you’re supposed to tip a tattoo artist. The only people who answer that question are tattoo artists, who are probably inflating, and people who don’t want to tip tattoo artists at all, who are probably deflating. Which makes it difficult for 99% of people who want to tip generously, but who don’t want to be taken advantage of.

The best service I can provide is to present two views on sensitivity readers: The Biggest Proponent and Worst Detractor. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of the altruistic sensitivity reader who just wants to help you write a great novel and the problematizing word gestapo. And it’s probably not in the precise middle, just somewhere between.

I assume these will please no one. That's kind of the point. Find your satisfaction in the middle. 

The Proponent Version:

When it comes to more diverse books, sensitivity readers play a complicated role.

A sensitivity reader would probably define what they do as going over a manuscript to check for problematic character traits, language, stereotyping, etc. Especially if you’ve written a novel from the perspective of someone who is demographically “other” from yourself. Perhaps you’re a Latino man who has written a main character who is a black woman. And perhaps you feel that you’ve done a good job depicting this character, but you’re thinking that you might not be 100% in touch with the experience of a black woman, and perhaps you’ve unintentionally put in traits, language, behaviors, descriptions, or even scenarios that would read as inauthentic to readers, especially if they are black women. So, you hire a sensitivity reader, who DOES have experience in that area, to check over your work. This can be done for just about any form of “otherness,” including race, gender, ability, what have you.

The Detractor Version:

A detractor would probably define a sensitivity reader as someone who goes through your manuscript in search of anything that people would potentially deem offensive for any number of reasons. The sensitivity reader can highlight those for you, and then you can decide whether or not to remove or alter them. Basically, this detractor would define a sensitivity reader as a pre-internet check: What are the thinkpieces regarding your book going to be about? What should I censor from my work in order to avoid trouble? You’ll then get a pass/fail type of grade on your work, and you’ll probably hear something about how your manuscript doesn’t contain any trans characters, and your erasure of the trans community is an affront to the idea that love is love and a continuation of the heteronormativity of our society that can [clap emoji] not [clap emoji] stand [multiple clap emojis]. Your lack of disabled characters demonstrates that you’re an ableist, and the way you handled race has made you the next Hitler.

The Main Arguments In Favor

People who are in favor of using sensitivity readers will say that it’s not so much censorship as it is another form of editing. You hire an editor to check the copy, evaluate the story arc, help make sense of things, and so on. If you wrote a sci-fi book, you might ask one of your science-oriented friends to peruse it. A sensitivity reader is really no different from hiring an editor of any type. They just have a specific area of concern. For example: I had an editor who really discouraged verbs ending in “-ing.” Was I being censored? Not really. I was being challenged to do better. Sensitivity readers can challenge you to do better in other ways.

Sensitivity readers can add depth to your characters. They may steer you away from using things like skin color as a shortcut to personality. We get your character is from Pakistan, but what does that mean? How has that shaped his worldview? How has that shaped the way he’s been treated in his current environment? Where is the intersection of who he is as a character and who he is demographically? If this seems like a bother to you, think about it this way: A common exercise in beginning fiction writing classes might be to have a writer consider what a character has in the fridge. This is meant to help the writer better unpack the idea of who the character is, as a person who exists in their world. Sensitivity reading can help you flesh out characters.

The Main Arguments Against

The straw man argument that's pinned to the anti-sensitivity reader crowd (sometimes by their own doing) is that sensitivity reading is censorship. It's debatable, but I think there are more significant, less debatable reasons that one might not elect to use a sensitivity reader.

If I’m not confident in the authenticity of my renderings, then maybe that’s a sign I’m writing something I really shouldn’t be writing at all. That's the first argument against right there: the necessity of a sensitivity reader might signal you're doing something you should reconsider. I don't think this is just about sensitive topics. I just think that writers should tell the stories only they can tell. That's the thing of greatest value that a writer can offer.

Sensitivity readers do not protect authors. They will read and provide feedback, but they do not want to be used as a “shield” against criticism. This makes sense, but it’s a good argument against using a reader as that reader really provides no guarantees with their work. They can only read the manuscript as one person, not as an entire demographic, and therefore don’t offer an author much in terms of protection/safeguarding against making a mistake. A single reader from a demographic can’t claim to speak for that demographic, and therefore can be a version of a double-check, but there’s just no guarantee. If the masses feel like you're book is sexist, saying, "I had a female sensitivity reader go over this thing," is the literary equivalent of, "I have a female friend, so I'm all good."

The idea that sensitivity readings are just like any other editorial readings is disingenuous. If a novelist gets some facts wrong, never closes a plot hole, or writes a fairly boring book, does any number of things that should be caught by good editing, they might not be seen as a great author, but most people won’t attack them personally, try to end their career, or write a long Twitter rant about what a horrible human that author is. But, if an author messes up when it comes to depicting a character in a way that’s viewed unfavorably, that can be a career-wrecker. What sensitivity readers do comes with more weight, but despite the importance, it doesn't come with any solid guarantees. Which a fire marshall approving the safety of a building, but not taking responsibility for the building’s lack of exits, which results in a couple people getting incinerated.

The Most Contested Part of the Debate

When it comes to more diverse books, sensitivity readers play a complicated role.

A sensitivity reader can probably work through far more manuscripts in a year than they could write themselves. Especially if they receive the manuscripts when most of the editing is done, the copy is in good shape, and the general structure is in place. Meaning a larger quantity of diverse books with good-faith efforts towards authenticity could be pumped into the market.

There’s also the argument that it's important for high profile voices to present diverse characters. When Jodi Picoult writes a novel with a black main character, that book is in the hands of a shitload of people. She has huge reach, her books show up in prominent places, and when she does it, the representation needle moves. So, having multiple sensitivity readers (as Picoult did for Small Great Things) means there’s thoughtful representation in a blockbuster book.

But there’s also the “own voices” concept. Let’s say I’m Jodi Picoult and I write a book with a black main character. In order to write and publish this book, I employ several sensitivity readers. While I may pull it off, the “own voices” concept would say that rather than having me, a white woman, employ black sensitivity readers, perhaps that story is better written by one of those black women. Perhaps my blockbuster novel takes the place that could be occupied by a novel written by someone who genuinely comes from a background that resembles the main character. 

Some writers coming from the “own voices” perspective will say they’re having a harder time getting published because big publishers are turning to their big names to publish diverse books, going with Jodi Picoult instead of a relative unknown, diversifying their characters while their authors remain the same.

Lightning Round

Let’s do some quick, Yes/No opinions.

Yes: If you’re a Young Adult author. This is a sector of books that, for reasons we aren’t even going to speculate on, seems apt to tear each other apart. You need all the help you can get.

No: If you plan to argue a lot with the sensitivity reader.

Yes: If you’re not paying for it and a legit publisher is making it happen. Why not?

No: If your book is meant to be transgressive in a way that would obviously be flagged by a sensitivity reader.

Yes: If you genuinely are concerned about people being hurt, not because of what effect it might have on your career, just because avoiding hurting people is a primary goal of your fiction and/or career. Note the difference between avoiding hurting people being a primary goal and hurting people being something you’d prefer to avoid, but not being the driving force behind what you write.

No: If you don’t have a reliable way to find and vet a good reader. 

Yes: If your book is intended for an audience that would appreciate the fact that you used a sensitivity reader. If they see the good intention behind what you're doing as meaningful, then you might as well. 

No: If your sensitivity reader doesn’t have a significant background in fiction, writing, English (if you’re writing in English), publishing, marketing, etc. They should definitely have demonstrable writing or editing skills, and you should share an understanding of how fiction operates.

Yes: If you’re doing it for the people who are your fans as opposed to the people who are your detractors.

No: If you’re doing it out of a sense of compliance as opposed to belief that it’s the right thing to do.

Personal Opinion

Here’s my decision. Not a recommendation, not a condemnation of sensitivity readers or the people who employ them. Not a statement about diversity in books. Just my personal decision.

I don’t feel that sensitivity reading is censorship, but...perhaps it’s fair to be concerned that there's a homogenization happening here.

I wrote a book. One section of that book used the word “retarded” to describe developmentally disabled adults. And I wrestled with that. Because I know how that word makes people feel, and at the same time, I thought that because the book was meant to be a very intimate communication with the narrator, using contemporary and correct terminology felt formal to me. It felt like the way someone would talk to their boss at work as opposed to the way they might talk to a friend, in confidence. I felt formal, careful language pushed the reader away. 

For the record, I did take out the word "retarded." I don't say that to make you feel a certain way about me, like I'm a big hero here. I say that because I think it was important for me to think about and decide for myself. To decide what would make the story most like the story I want to tell, the way I would tell it.   

And it's important for different writers to make a different decision. 

A novel is a huge pile of micro decisions. What differentiates one writer from another is how they handle those decisions. The more that these micro decisions are codified and made based on objective(ish) criteria, the more same-y books become. 

That's what I fear, not what I know. Nobody really knows. There's no definitive answer here. No plan that's going to work for everyone.

My decision is for me. You have to make your own.

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About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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