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Determining If You Need Sensitivity Readers
Written by
She Writes
August 2019
Written by
She Writes
August 2019

During the editing process, you're going to be focused on pacing, character development, setting, tone, voice, dialogue, POV and dozens of other factors. There is A LOT to think about when you're writing a book. You'll hire developmental editors, copyeditors and proofreaders to make sure your book looks great and entertains readers. Perhaps you'll even have a team of beta readers or family and friends contributing their feedback.

With all those eyes on your work, you may overlook an increasingly critical reviewer to have on your team: Sensitivity Readers.

Who is a sensitivity reader?

First off, let's talk about who a sensitivity reader is. This is a person who will help bring a fresh perspective to your story. This person MUST have a different background than you and should in some way represent an aspect of your story that deviates from your own personal experience. This reader is there to help you identify clichés, stereotypes, cultural misrepresentations, offensive inaccuracies and any other forms of misappropriations. 

The bottom line is no one writer is able to see through the lens of every race, sexual identity, social or economic background. Every writer is going to come to the table with assumptions, prejudices and experiences that can misinform characters and be offputting to readers. And every writer will have a blindspot for the areas where this might occur.

That is where a sensitivity reader comes in. Someone who can see your words from a different angle and help you see the ways particular language can be offensive, inaccurate or overly broad.

Consider these scenarios that might call for a sensitivity reader.

You have a diverse cast of characters

In order to have a book full of intrigue and interest, you can't have characters who are cookie-cutter versions of yourself. Today's readers deserve to see an array of voices on the page. But that need and desire to have a diverse cast does not suddenly fill a writer with the knowledge to inform those characters accurately. Too often an author will use what they have seen on TV and in movies and in other books to describe someone with a different background than their own. Unfortunately, those resources are flooded with poorly handled representation and can perpetuate the problem. 

You're trying to write about a culture you haven't experienced

If you grew up in Southern California but are writing a book that depicts a family in the South – you're going to need a sensitivity reader. While there's plenty of research you can do online about the culture of another location, you need to make sure it checks out with someone who spent their life surrounded by that culture. Even if you're writing about a race that you belong to, experiences change drastically in different geographic locations. 

You're tackling political or social issues

In our everchanging world, it's normal to want to write a book about big issues. But, as we discussed above, it's important to write about the issues with a keen eye for perspective. Whether you're writing about historical events like the AIDS hysteria of the 1980s or ongoing issues like immigration in the U.S., having sympathy isn't the same as having experience. Chase the story that speaks to your heart, but know that research can only take you so far. You have to not only have your character's perspective in mind but a polished world view as well.

You're writing about trauma, mental health

Another area of extreme difficulty is when we are dealing with painful, dark and often misunderstood subjects. Violent acts like rape, torture, murder, suicide and terrorism can be misused and mispresented by writers who live in countries where these events are frequently seen on screen, but may not have been a first-hand experience for the author. 

Furthermore, the way we perceive mental health is often just as skewed as the way we perceive other cultures. If you're dealing with depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder or any mental health issue, having a reader who can make sure you're handling these disorders with care for the individual experience will not only giving your writing more power but keep you from using real-life ordeals as a punchline. 

How to Find a Sensitivity Reader 

Ask a friend or family member

If you know someone who you think can help you better represent events and people in your story, there is no harm in asking. But remember, "sensitivity" is the key here. If you are dealing with difficult subjects understand that not everyone will want to talk about their personal lives. Approach the people in your life with respect and a desire to learn. Never from a position of defensiveness or overstepping someone's privacy.

Hire someone

Just like any other editor, you can seek out people who will accept payment to read your story and provide feedback. 

Develop relationships with your existing readers

Reach out to those who already read your books. Ask if any of your current fans would be interested in becoming beta readers and develop a set of questions for them that are meant to help flesh out trouble areas.

Go to an expert

With really difficult subjects, you may struggle to find someone who is willing to comment on their direct experience to help you inform your work. However, a psychologist, historian or professor may be able to help inform your writing in a way that is backed by years (if not decades) of training. 

Odds are that just about everybody could use a sensitivity reader. Not only will it help you sharpen your skills for developing believable characters and worlds, but more importantly, it will help you become a more informed author. As a storyteller, you have an obligation to readers to accurately and fairly represent people. There is so much power in storytelling and that power has to be used wisely and respectfully. 

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