An interesting thing has been happening to me with increased frequency: I’ve been asked to read friends’ and acquaintances’ manuscripts as a sensitivity reader for stories that deal with immigration. Because I am a Latina and an immigrant, and the authors who’ve requested I read their work are writing outside of their own experience, I’ve been asked to evaluate their work for authenticity. So far, I’ve had to turn down these kinds of requests because I’ve been busy with my own writing and mentoring work, not to mention personal commitments. But while I am not actively offering sensitivity reading as a service, there are several writers and editors who are. As sensitivity readers become more sought after in the publishing world, their role has been met with mixed reactions.
First Things First: What Is a Sensitivity Read?
A sensitivity read is an evaluation of a manuscript, usually one that touches upon characters and experiences of a marginalized group of people, that is performed by someone within that group to bring attention to potential inaccuracies, biases, and reinforcements of harmful stereotypes. Much like one might ask a cardiologist to read their story about a cardiologist for accuracy, a sensitivity read helps ensure that the portrayal of characters and worlds unknown to the author ring true. But more than that, it helps authors better yield the immense power and responsibility of their words. How many of us write because we want to make sense of the world around us? And more importantly, how many readers seek out our work in search of stories and truths that will, inadvertently or not, shape how they see the world?
This kind of work takes, well…work, at every stage of the process. There’s pre-writing research, there are revelations we experience during the writing itself. Post-writing, a sensitivity read provides yet another crucial layer of learning to the process. And yet, some authors continue to resist (and resent) the very idea of one.
Maybe it’s the name. The word “sensitive” has gotten a bad wrap lately, too often used to accuse someone of being too touchy or emotional. Perhaps the real question writers should be asking is: am I being sensitive enough? Am I using my senses to foster acute awareness and concern for the complexities of what I’m writing about? Isn’t that part of our job as writers?
Maybe it’s how it’s described. A recent story titled “Publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’ to flag potentially offensive content” included an unfortunate word choice in the headline alone. The main purpose of a sensitivity read is not to avoid offending; it’s to avoid harming. If you’re writing about a person who is marginalized or underrepresented, understand the weight of what that means—for readers who rarely see their experiences reflected in books, seeing negative or erroneous stereotypes reinforced can be hurtful to them and their community. For readers outside of that experience, yours may be one of the few stories about a disabled or gay or black person that they read for years. Books carry authority; they have a way of seeming to represent the truth. They can expand or stunt our capacity for empathy. What author wouldn’t want to get this responsibility right?
How to Approach a Sensitivity Read and Reader
In the interest of keeping this straight-forward, a brief list of do’s and don’ts.
- Do offer and expect to pay for a sensitivity read. Just like any editor’s service, their work is valuable. A great place to start is with Write In the Margins’ Sensitivity Reader Database.
- Don’t hire a sensitivity reader with the expectation that someone within the community you’re writing about will sign off on your manuscript and give it a stamp of approval.
- Do approach a sensitivity read with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Like any evaluation of your work, it is meant to help you craft a better story.
- Don’t assume that any writer within the community you’re writing about will do this kind of work for you—many of us are hard at work trying to make our own stories and voices heard. Be mindful of the fact that, as marginalized people, we live in a world that constantly asks us to justify the validity of our experiences. This is exhausting to do for ourselves, let alone for others.
- Do read, read, and read books written by the people you’re writing about. Then think about what you’ll contribute to these narratives. Be honest in asking if you are the right person to do so.
- Don’t assume nobody else is writing these stories and that’s why you’re the one to write them. Just because you’re not aware of certain writers and voices doesn’t mean they’re not out there—they are likely not getting the marketing support that more “mainstream” (heavy emphasis on quotation marks) stories are getting.
- Do seek out these books. Buy them. Read them. Recommend them to others. Focus on amplifying rather than silencing.
- Don’t assume that one sensitivity reader represents an entire group of people. Just like our characters, communities contain multitudes—it’ll take more than one draft or a simple bit of research to do them justice.
- Do be ready to make mistakes, and embrace the chance to learn something from them.
- Don’t blame social media for increased scrutiny of your work. On the contrary, it’s given a platform to voices that previously, might’ve not had the chance to call out misrepresentations in such a large scale manner. Poor representation has always happened; the only difference is it got a pass more easily when certain voices weren’t being given a place at the editorial table.
- Finally, do reclaim your sensitive side. We are writers because we ARE sensitive to the world around us. We are writers because we observe and question and search for truth and meaning and understanding through stories. Of course, we write to escape and entertain as well, but even then, words are powerful.
Have you considered hiring a sensitivity reader? Why or why not?
P.S. I’ll be on a road trip on the day this posts, but I look forward to reading and answering any comments/questions later this weekend.
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