Should You Use Sensitivity Readers?

Sensitivity readers have been on our radar for the last few years, and in some circles they’ve even become controversial. Here’s a brief overview of what sensitivity readers do so that you can decide whether to consider incorporating them into your process.

What do sensitivity readers do?

They typically read unpublished manuscripts early in the editing process, giving feedback on sensitive cultural issues, accurate racial portrayals, and concerns about bias or stereotypes represented in the book.

Why has this become a thing?

Over the last several years, many people have (rightly) been pushing for more diversity in publishing, more books published by and about people of color, more explorations of cultures outside of the dominant Western “white” narrative, and more diverse characters in novels. This has led many authors to begin writing about characters and situations that are not only more diverse but well outside that author’s own realm of experience. When you are writing about something that you don’t deeply understand, it’s likely you’ll unknowingly rely on stereotypes or false narratives, or simply fail to accurately portray a certain kind of character or cultural reality. By hiring sensitivity readers, you can receive feedback and fix any issues before the book goes to publication.

Why is it controversial?

Personally, I don’t find it controversial. I think it’s a smart thing to do, especially for white authors who are including people of color as characters in their story. However, the use of sensitivity readers has led to concerns about censorship in some circles, and other find their use to be overly “politically correct.” They feel the author has the right to convey their story in a way that reflects their own knowledge and experience of the world.

I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep increasing our understanding of the world, especially of those from different backgrounds or cultures than our own. I think using a sensitivity reader can help an author not only learn how to better portray the people and environments about whom they write, but also avoid making an ignorant mistake that can have negative and painful consequences when readers and critics start posting reviews.

How do you find sensitivity readers?

The best way, right now, is to ask around among your writing community. Many authors, editors, and agents will be able to get you some names.

Working with sensitivity readers.

It’s usually sufficient to have 2 or 3 readers on a project; that way, you’ll get varying perspectives and you’ll also know if something in your manuscript is so glaring that all of your readers noted it.

The starting rate for a reader is about $250-$300, but more experienced readers and longer books will be more expensive.

If you’re giving your readers the whole manuscript to read at once, which is the most common way to do it, you’ll want to give them enough time, usually about a month. Some readers can do it in two weeks, other may need six weeks. If you’d like to do it another way, such as give your readers a few chapters at a time as you write them, you’ll need to work it out with them individually.

The most important part about working with sensitivity readers, of course, is being able to hear their feedback and revise accordingly. You may find this an easy and fun process as you increase your own understanding of another race or culture; or you may find the feedback goes against the story you’d envisioned or the character’s personality or arc that you’d planned. Be ready for this, and keep your mind as open as possible and your defenses low, so that this process can work for you.

So… do you need sensitivity readers?

If you’re writing about a character or setting that is foreign to you, and you feel it runs the risk of being offensive if you got any details wrong, then definitely consider it. I’ve had a couple of fiction authors use them and I thought it was a very good decision. If your book is under contract, talk with your agent & publisher, because the publisher may be willing to absorb the cost.

 

If you should decide to invest in some personalized counsel, I offer coaching for unpublished authors here: My Coaching Services

I also offer online courses here: Author School

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Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

2 Comments

  1. Maryann Kovalski on January 25, 2020 at 7:57 AM

    There was a time when etiquette and courtesy were held as the ideal for human interaction, social or otherwise. Polite people did not talk politics or religion at the table. One did not boast about possessions or wealth or vacations. Yet the same time all this delicacy was happening around cultivated dinner tables, it was fine to ridicule brown people, to make them drink at separate water fountains, to fight wars in segregated units. A man wrote of how common it was for young men to gather round a friend who impregnated a girl, claiming under oath that the entire football team had sex with her.

    Many long for those good old days of free speech. I don’t.

    I know a shift in sensitivity can seem overly elaborate, but it is a shift in a more moral direction.



  2. Les Edgerton on January 22, 2020 at 8:14 AM

    This is about one thing and one thing only–censorship. That’s all the PC movement/culture is about and has been about. Comes from our snowflake culture with people with too-thin skin who have to be “protected” from big, bad words and ideas. That a writer would even be concerned with this is very troubling. We are raising a nation of children, not adults. Our colleges, universities and even high schools have become bastions for teaching students to avoid anything that smacks of a different idea.



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