As writers, we have the option to utilize–sometimes for pay, sometimes not–a variety of readers and editors along the road to publication. What they provide varies with their role; critique partners offer different feedback than beta readers, copy editors different than developmental editors, and so on.
A relatively new type of reader to come on to the scene is the sensitivity reader. New, but no less important, especially if you’re writing about a marginalized character. The main character in one of my own novels is an example. She has a different cultural background than I do. The story itself doesn’t revolve around her culture, but the culture did help shape who she is. I decided, therefore, to hire a sensitivity reader.
When I mentioned to other writers that I’d taken that path, I got a few common questions about it. So, I thought I’d answer some of them here.
What is a sensitivity reader?
Here’s how Writing In The Margins defines sensitivity readers:
A sensitivity reader reads through a manuscript for issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page. The goal of a sensitivity reader isn’t to edit a manuscript for clarity and logic, although that may be an additional service offered. A sensitivity reader reviews a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language. A sensitivity reader is there to help make sure you do not make a mistake, but they are also NOT a guarantee against making a mistake.
How did you find your sensitivity reader?
I used the Writing In The Margins Sensitivity Reader Database. It’s quite detailed, and offers a lot of options. Once you find a potential reader on the list, it’s just a matter of reaching out to them via the provided contact information. Note that this is a for-pay service, but I felt it was well worth the cost. This cost will vary with the reader and what services they offer.
There are likely other options available, too. I, unfortunately, don’t have any other recommendations, but a web search should provide some ideas. It’s also worth connecting with other writing groups in your area, or online. There could be someone there who may be able/willing to read for you, or can connect you with someone who is.
What was the process like?
About as easy as can be, though I do recognize that this may vary with the reader.
Once I found a potential reader in the database, I sent her an email with a few questions, to confirm that she was willing to take on a novel in my category and genre. We also went over a few other details, to make sure we were on the same page, so to speak. When we were both clear on everything, we signed a contract, I sent her the manuscript, and she added it to her queue. She read it when its turn came up, then sent me her feedback.
Honestly, it’s all pretty straight-forward.
What were the results?
Again, this may vary with the reader. Mine didn’t have a whole to say, as she was pretty happy with what she saw in the manuscript. But she did provide me with some in-line notes, as well as a summary document, with suggested changes that could make the main character’s cultural background come across more strongly. There was also a list of resources for me to take a look at, in case I needed any additional help.
The feedback she provided me with was very encouraging. She never made me feel as though I’d screwed up, or that I’d made any major missteps.
Would you recommend other writers find a sensitivity reader?
If you’re writing about a marginalized character whose experience is different from your own, then yes, I would. It’s a way of helping to ensure that your work is accurate and not harmful–two things we should all be striving for. That said, we can’t rely on sensitivity readers to fix potentially problematic language in our stories; while we can ask for their help in avoiding mistakes, we also need to strive to not make them in the first place.