There has been more and more discussion lately about the utility and necessity of sensitivity readers. And, friends, not all of it encourages me.
Recently, I saw a poll on Facebook asking fellow authors if they would let a sensitivity reader edit their work. And the answers (as well as the phrasing of the poll question) kind of concern me. Many of the responses were along the lines of “absolutely not!” and “I would never want to filter my writing for these sensitive snowflakes!”
Writer friends, that mentality and lack of understanding is a problem.
There seems to be a lot of confusion about what a sensitivity reader is and what role they play in the editing process, as well as the benefit that having sensitivity readers can offer authors. So today, I want to discuss and get into when you should consider finding a sensitivity reader for your own work.
Sensitivity reader (n): a beta reader with topic-relevant experience and/or expertise who reads a manuscript in order to evaluate sensitive content for misinformation, stereotypes, and harmful portrayals.
Sensitivity readers DO NOT edit an author’s work. They are simply targeted beta readers (which is actual a term that is coming into popularity for this type of reader).
And they can be very important to your work. Just in the last year, several books have been pulled from expected publication because of issues related to lack of sensitivity readers. Check out this article, and this one.
Remember all those times I mentioned that we, as authors, want to give our books every chance for success? Well, that’s one role of a sensitivity reader! Do you want to write something so offensive or ignorant that you alienate an entire demographic? Are you so convinced in the “rightness” of how you decide to write, that your work will somehow be corrupted if you take these “special snowflake” feelings into consideration, that you refuse to care about the feelings of your readers?
Guys. That’s not acceptable. Without readers, there can be no stories. Their experience and what they bring to a story is half of it. And these people are people. They deserve their stories to be told with respect and consideration, not for hype or effect or to play to tropes and stereotypes.
So let’s talk about some flags that mean you should find sensitivity readers.
- You write about a character with a mental illness or disability, physical illness or disability, or other similar conditions.
- You write about any marginalized group of people.
- You write a story containing abuse of any kind.
- You write about a sensitive topic with which you have NO personal experience.
- You write about a sensitive topic with which you HAVE personal experience.
- You write about a real topic or place where you are not part of the culture.
- You write Young Adult.
Let’s break that down a little more.
I think the first four are pretty self-explanatory. You want people to read your work who have direct experience with the topics in your story. It is important to have these opinions and checks and balances to tell you if the way you are portraying them and their situation is inaccurate or harmful in any way. If you ignore this, you risk, as I said, angering and alienating an entire group of readers who may (and will, depending on the context) drag you, your career, and your book through the mud. And besides that, by having these readers look at your work and provide feedback, you will add a layer of realism and relatability to the work. Having these readers will only strengthen the material you release.
And then there’s #5. Even if you are writing #ownvoices, I would still suggest finding another reader or two to contribute their experience. It doesn’t hurt to know how other people with this same experience view what you said. Example: I once wrote something in a book I had experienced myself. But when I had someone read it, they told me that what I said, even though it was a true thing for me, would actually be a harmful thing to keep in the book for my (teenage) audience. Without realizing it, I could have been causing harm, even though I wrote from personal experience.
Sensitivity readers can also be especially important if you’re writing YA. Because when you’re writing YA, you have to remember that you’re writing for young adults. They are still kids. Even if it’s a tough topic, even if they need to think about it, we need to write books that are fit for younger audiences. And that means avoiding the spread of misinformation, avoiding writing things that will directly harm a teenage reader (particularly if they are in a marginalized group or fit into my categories above). It also means sharing information that teens will find important. Just take a look at this article about what teens can learn from books, and why discussing these things is important!
It’s also important that we, if we are adult authors (like me), accurately showcase what teenage life is like. I don’t know about you, but my own teenage days were a decade ago, and things have changed! Flip phones are out, for one. And internet culture is much bigger than it was when I was in high school.
The things we say, and the way we say them, can make or break our books. Words have so much power, my friends.
Beta readers are critical to your work. Sensitivity readers are critical for your work. Please consider the value in utilizing them as important resources while you edit. Take their comments seriously, and do everything you can to make your book shine in a truly positive way.
And, as always, keep writing!
Writers, readers, gather ’round! Do you have experience with sensitivity readers? Are you a sensitivity reader? Tell me about your experiences and thoughts below!