One of the marvelous things about being a writer is the ability to tell any story, set anywhere. However, when your create characters and writing settings that don’t approximate your lived experience, there is potential danger that you may appropriate or misrepresent someone else’s culture and life.
Whether maliciously or accidentally, we can sometimes perpetuate harmful biases in our writing, and the best way to remedy that is by working with a Sensitivity Reader.
What does a Sensitivity Reader do?
This is someone who helps you shape representations of their religion/ethnicity/culture/sexuality/gender/traumas/lived experiences in your story, so that they’re honest, authentic, and non-harmful.
Of course, a single sensitivity reader cannot stand in for every person in their community—they are not monolith—but they can help direct you away from choices that are insensitive, harmful, and biased.
For example, I was the SR on a YA novel. I was able to give feedback on queer youth spaces, and the representation of bisexuality, being bi and having been out-ish in my late teens myself. And I’m glad I did, because there was a single line in the novel about bi people being “greedy sluts who can’t make up their minds.” This is a terribly harmful stereotype, which reinforces to all sorts of biphobia and discrimination in both the straight and queer communities. I mentioned this to the author, and she took it out.
But an SR doesn’t just exist to tell you to take stuff out. They can help you craft a better version of something to stay in. Or they might teach you about an aspect of their culture or life that you can use in the novel in that will improve the plot, or allow your work to expand in ways you didn’t expect.
When should I get an Sensitivity Reader?
A sensitivity reader is someone you bring in either at the start of the writing process (while you’re outlining and planning), or after you’ve finished a first draft of your book, or both.
I recommend researching sensitivity readers and/or their community the moment you conceive of the character or situation that requires it. Before you even put pen to page, take some time to read articles and blog posts about that community so that when you’re planning your outline or pantsing your chapters, you’re doing so already armed with a solid foundation of understanding.
This may be as simple as—for example—me reaching out to a male Black friend of Caribbean decent and saying, “Hey friend; I’m thinking of adding a supporting character to this novel with the same background as you. He’ll be doing Z, Y, and Z in the plot. Any representation pitfalls I should avoid?”
Once you have a draft of the novel, you should be finding an sensitivity reader to read it before you put too much other work into it, so you can make sure that cornerstone is stable before you build your revisions.
How much do I share with my Sensitivity Reader?
Depending on how much the character shows up in the book, sometimes you just need to share their scenes or chapters, and sometimes you need to share the whole manuscript. It really all depends on the book and how you feel.
How do I find an Sensitivity Reader?
- Your agent, editor or publisher may have suggestions for you, especially if they’ve worked with an sensitivity reader in the same community before
- Research and contact your local group—something like PFLAG if you’re looking for queer rep, or a grief support network if you’re looking for people who have experienced a specific trauma, etc. And be respectful when you approach them. Ask, don’t demand, and don’t outright state any information that may be triggering without warning first.
- Check out social media. There are lots of readers out there who have identifying info in their bios, or whole websites/groups dedicated to providing contact info for SRs of different stripes.
- Ask fellow authors who have also featured this community/identity in their novels who their SR was.
- Some sensitivity readers charge for their services, and some don’t.
And remember to list your Sensitivity Reader in your acknowledgements! They absolutely deserve the gratitude for their generosity and guidance!