A conversation is raging in the writing world and it’s not about the latest Harry Potter “backstory” that J.K. Rowling revealed on Twitter. Sensitivity readers lie at the heart of the debate — and the controversy has hit such heights that it has drawn attention from media outlets ranging from Literary Hub to the New York Times.
For an author, the argument over the correct use of sensitivity readers might be smothering what they actually do. This post will clear the fog and uncover exactly what this kind of reader is — and what you can expect when you work with one. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a better idea of whether you need one.
What are sensitivity readers?
Sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.
While these readers are not new to the publishing landscape, they have recently risen to prominence. Thanks to encouragement from organizations like We Need Diverse Books, there has been an earnest push to include more diverse characters in published literature, though some of these good-faith efforts have met with mixed reception.
Such readers particularly became a hot topic in 2016, when the pre-release of the young adult novel The Continent was quickly met with online reviews pointing out problematic portrayals of people of color. The book’s release date was pushed back and galley copies were sent off to sensitivity readers, which resulted in numerous changes. Which brings us to both the case for them — and against them.
The case for sensitivity readers
Publishing has a diversity problem: not only is the industry predominantly white and middle-class, but the stories overwhelmingly feature white characters. In recent years, the tide has shown signs of turning as inclusion and equity have become increasingly sought-after in an effort to represent the variety of cultures and diverse backgrounds that make up the world.
However, the reality is that while more diverse books are being published now, many of them are written by white authors. Writers, like all human beings, are the products of their upbringing and often have little real-world context for writing about a culture outside their own — hence where the skills of such specialized readers come into play. Feedback from such readers can:
- Ensure better representation on the page. As diversity in literature becomes increasingly in-demand, it’s important that characters are represented accurately, without perpetuating stereotypes. This kind of reader helps by pointing out unintentionally insensitive or incorrect portrayals of race, sexuality, religion, and physical disabilities.
- Improve the quality of the book. All books benefit hugely from a multidimensional, rich, and nuanced cast of characters — something that the use of sensitivity readers will encourage, as the feedback can steer characters away from being one-note cardboard cutouts.
Moreover, in today’s real-time and divisive online environment — spurred on by such sites as Twitter — this kind of reader helps prevent the worst-case scenario: backlash which results in a book being withdrawn from publication. For publishers, these readers can avert the embarrassing predicament of canceling a book launch on the back of a public apology. The Continent was far from the only book that sunk because of a turbulent online reaction to its representation of diversity: Amélie Wen Zhao initially called off the summer 2019 publication of Blood Heir due to criticism of the way that her novel dealt with indentured labor and slavery.
Zhao only recently announced that Blood Heir is back on schedule for publication — after editing the novel and “taking the time to make sure the hallmarks of human trafficking were being incisively drawn.”
The case against sensitivity readers
Censorship is generally at the heart of every argument against these readers. Their detractors are concerned that these readers police expression of thought, resulting in homogenous stories that are afraid to touch complex topics — and a sterilized world of books in which controversial language can’t be used.
Though one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear for an author is to “write what you know,” some also argue that the increasingly looming need for such readers discourages authors from experimenting and writing outside of their own perspectives. As Francine Prose wrote in an article for the NY Books: “Should we dismiss Madame Bovary because Flaubert lacked “lived experience” of what it meant to be a restless provincial housewife? Can we no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black?”
From this point of view, sensitivity readers monitor freedom of thought, which is antithetical to what creative writing should be all about.
What can you expect from a sensitivity reader?
With all of the debate around the topic, what actually goes into a reader’s work can easily get overlooked. So what exactly does it entail? Well, the entire process depends on the individual — but generally, the collaboration between reader and author plays out in four stages.
1. Finding the right reader for the book
To add value to a text, the reader must match the needs of the book. For instance, if you’re a white author writing a book with a black protagonist, your reader would ideally come from such a background and understand the nuances of 1. writing from such a perspective, and 2. depicting the culture. Likewise, make sure that the reader is experienced in the genre. A reader that specializes in reading children’s books wouldn’t be a good fit for an adult genre novel, and vice versa.
Here are some more best practices to keep in mind for the search:
- Expect to pay for a reader’s services. Prices will vary, but generally fixed prices start from $250 for a novel. Some sensitivity readers charge by the hour — make sure that you get it all down in a contract so that both of you are on the same page before starting the collaboration.
- Find a reader who understands publishing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they must be writers themselves — merely that they ought to understand the nuances of the writing process and be up-to-date on publishing debates. It shouldn’t just be any random person off the street — these readers are professionals in their own right and should know the ins and outs of the industry, as well as the contexts that require their knowledge.
- Set a firm deadline with the reader. Generally, the turnaround time is 2 to 5 weeks. Hash it out with the reader beforehand to avoid any confusion.
As for where you can find these readers in the first place, the Writing in the Margins database is a good place to start. Ask around on Twitter and various writing communities — fellow writers will be happy to offer recommendations or share insight from past collaborations with sensitivity readers.
2. Allow time for the reader to, well, read
Once the contract is ironed out and all of the details of the collaboration are fixed, the author will give the reader the entire manuscript to read. As we mentioned earlier, this stage usually takes between 2 to 5 weeks, depending on the length of the manuscript — the reader won’t be speedreading, but carefully evaluating characterizations, noting down sentences that are off, and appraising the tone of the book.
3. Listen to the feedback
When the reader is done with the manuscript, it’s time for the reaction. It depends on the reader, but most of the time, feedback takes the form of comments in the margins of the manuscript and a detailed letter. Usually, a follow-up consultation, such as a phone call, can be taken up to resolve any lingering questions.
Much of the time, the feedback will pinpoint things that an author might not have ever considered. As sensitivity reader Dhonielle Clayton revealed in an interview with Vulture: “I read a middle-grade book about a little black girl who loves to go to national parks, and I told the author that the first thing she needed to reconcile was, how did this black girl get into national parks? Historically, black people weren’t allowed to visit national parks, so going to national parks is not a thing we do, as a group. I wrote to her that if this little girl loves to camp, you need to figure out how that happened, how that passion was stoked, how her parents and grandparents felt about it. Or you have to make her white. Because otherwise it’s a paint by numbers diversity piece and it rings false.”
Keep an open mind when you receive the feedback. The reader will point out blind spots — things that wouldn’t have occurred to an author who is writing about a different culture — and may raise delicate tonal questions. Like a developmental editor does for a manuscript, the criticism is ultimately meant to raise the quality of the book.
4. Revise the manuscript accordingly
When the dust settles and all is said and done, it’s up to the author to make the final decision on whether or not to make the reader’s suggested edits. Nobody is stopping you from doing anything — on the contrary, a sensitivity read simply provides you with choices and information.
What a sensitivity read offers is advice: it’s not compulsory to change the story according to their counsel, though it’s certainly recommended once you’ve reached this stage.
Do you need a sensitivity reader?
So do you as an author need a sensitivity reader?
It depends on a number of variables: the subject on which you’re writing, your characters, and where you fall in the debate of censorship. Some writers may think, “Better safe than sorry,” while others believe that such readers are unnecessary. We’re not here to tell you what you should or should not do, but it’s important to be informed and to know exactly what you’ll get out of the process if you do decide to hire a reader’s services.