Sensitivity Readers

Tonight we’re going to talk about what sensitivity readers are and why we need them. When I was talking about my topics this month with the rest of my writing community, I discovered that people are… well… sensitive… about the topic of sensitivity readers. We’ll touch on that as well.

What are Sensitivity Readers?

In short, they are people representative of the culture, ability, gender, or disadvantaged social category you have tried to capture in your story. A sensitivity reader will read your work and offer critique from the perspective of their intersectionality.

If you are a cis white male (like me) and you’re only writing about other cis white males, you don’t need a sensitivity reader. On the other hand, if you’re a cis white male writing about someone that is blind, or gay, or black, or all of the above, a sensitivity reader will help keep you from relying on stereotypes to describe your characters. Sensitivity readers will keep you from accidentally writing something deeply hurtful.

Though the term “sensitivity reader” may be relatively new, the concept is not. Back in the day, they just called it fact checking. It was not uncommon for publishers to hire what were effectively sensitivity readers to give the story a degree of verisimilitude.

Being Offensive

None of this is about policing writers or trying to bleach their work with a politically correct rinse.

If you’re intention is to be offensive or write offensive characters, that is your prerogative. Having a character be intentionally racist or bigoted can be very effective.

Just note that there’s a difference between offending people and hurting them.

A sensitivity reader is there to help keep you from doing something unintentional. Writers use spell check or grammar checks to make sure they get the diction correct. Using a sensitivity reader is like that, only it keeps you from cutting a stranger’s heart with your razor sharp words.

Appropriation

You are an individual. I don’t know who you are or if you already know what appropriation feels like, so bear with me while I try to explain this for everyone else.

As an individual, you have your own personal stories. Some may be exciting, others dull, but it’s your history and your life. Take a moment to look back over the splendor of your life and your favorite memories.

Now imagine you have a talented stalker that’s been recording your life and posting it online for others to read. That’s bad enough, but imagine how much worse it is when they get the details wrong. You went to Disneyland this summer, but they say you went on a tour of Alcatraz. You have a few really close friends, but they say you’re a struggling loner. They document your life online, getting all of these details wrong, and people read these lies and believe them.

What is your recourse? You can post your own version of your history, but you’re fighting the weight of first impressions. And for some reason, this weird stalker has a wider reach and more people listening to them than you have listening to you.

Cultural appropriation is a bit like that.

This is also something a sensitivity reader will help you avoid. Also, this is different than offending someone. Cultural appropriation does actual harm, because it chips away at the actual truth of an entire people, wiping away their history with misconceptions and false assumptions.

Resources

So how do you find a sensitivity reader?

I used to be able to point at Writing the Other, but they took down their searchable database. I think I heard that someone abused it, which absolutely sucks.

You should still visit the site and make use of the resources, and if you get a chance to talk to K. Tempest Bradford, she is extremely helpful and eager to talk on this subject.

One thing Tempest will emphasize, which is very important, is that you should pay your sensitivity readers. They are subjecting themselves to real, potential pain by reading your work. They should receive hazard pay. The service they are doing for you is valuable, and so is their time, so pay them appropriately.

I have not found it particularly difficult to find sensitivity readers. Ask in your writing communities. When you go to writing conventions, ask your peers.

There are online and in-person classes on Writing the Other, and they usually have resources for helping you find a sensitivity reader.

Parting Thoughts

Obviously, you can skip everything I’ve just said and just do your own thing.

However, if you’ve spent a bunch of time doing research, and even more time drafting and revising and trying to make your story as polished as it can possibly be, why wouldn’t you take the extra step to make it even better?

Your mission tonight, should you decide to accept it, is simply to visit the Writing the Other website and check it out. Look at the classes and resources.

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