Many years ago, when I was applying for colleges, I had to write one, two, or sometimes three essays for each college or university I applied to. This process equaled at least seven, probably more around 14-21 essays for all schools.
There was usually one required essay that everyone had to complete, and one essay with multiple topics you could choose from. On one of the applications, a required essay topic was, “Tell ‘us’ (name of college omitted) why you think you would add diversity to ‘omitted college name’ ”. PAUSE. … LONG PAUSE… “OH, NO,” I thought. I’m not diverse at all.
I wrote a clunky essay about how my safe, privileged, and white upbringing could be considered diverse if you looked at it in a very different way. I also wrote that I was excited about the opportunity of attending a mixed school to learn more about diversity. In the end, I don’t think I got into that school.
I have learned a lot since my high school years, but every day I learn more. This week, I learned about sensitivity readers and how they are useful for increasing representation of minority groups, and how misusing language harms others.
This topic builds on the beta reader concept I discussed in my last blog post. Similar to beta readers, sensitivity readers give authors feedback which then gives them an opportunity to improve their writing.
What is a Sensitivity Reader?
A sensitivity reader is someone authors hire to provide feedback on their book. They check whether the language, characters, and story appropriately and equitably represent marginalized groups.
Sensitivity readers help authors make sure their writing appropriately represents a group or topic when an author does not have a direct connection with that particular subject. An author usually hires a sensitivity reader with direct experience or background in the subject they are writing about to make sure the language, settings and mannerisms are representative of the particular group or topic.
Sensitivity readers are not exclusive to helping represent typically marginalized groups. The topics they cover can be broad and include lifestyles, hobbies, or age groups. For example, if an author is writing about a character in the gaming community, a sensitivity reader can help with gaming-specific language and cultural mannerisms.
Typically, an author will hire a sensitivity reader before publishing. Sensitivity readers call out areas of inaccuracies, misguided language, and areas that reinforce harmful stereotypes. They also help add recognition for under-represented groups.
I became interested in sensitivity readers after attending the ACES Society for Editing conference last week. One of the key-note speakers, Alania Lavoie (https://alainaleary.com/), spoke about how editorial professionals can prioritize equity, inclusion, diversity, and anti-racism, and support measures to increase the representation of minorities in literature.
Some highlights from Lavoie speech include:
· Question the origin of everything. An author may not even know a word or phrase is offensive, but a sensitivity reader may red flag these moments in the manuscript.
· Who are you including or excluding with your words? People want to fit in and they care about inclusivity.
· When we point out differences, people feel excluded, yet we do not want to homogenize everyone. Keep aware of these issues and understand what the reader may be feeling.
Goals of Sensitivity Readers
One goal of sensitivity readers is to increase the number of characters in literature from under-represented groups. There is a lack of diversity in literature, and readers need to connect with characters to experience a story completely. Unfortunately, many readers have no connection at all to characters due to a lack of representation of themselves in the books they read.
Sensitivity readers are employed by businesses as well. Companies working with diversity initiatives benefit from professional editors skilled in proper language usage. Inclusive language allows a business to reach a larger number of customers without leaving anyone feeling left out.
Authors and readers know words make a difference. Authors may use certain words or phrases without knowing they are unintentionally harming someone or showing bias. And in our world today, words and labels quickly change in connotation. Hiring a professional who can look objectively and broadly at an author’s word choices may help prevent unintentional harm.
Unintentionally harming someone is probably the most common pitfall in authors’ writing. Last week I went to hang out with friends after a long, socially distanced year. We quickly got to the meat of everyone’s lives.
Two of the women were moms of adopted children, and both expressed feelings of depression around their adopted child’s birthday. They felt guilty they were not there for the birth and inept that their bodies, for whatever reason, didn’t allow them to birth children of their own.
How negative would an adopted parent feel after reading a book scene of a joyous birthday celebration for their adopted child? It would feel contrived and possibly bring that adopted parent to feel bad after reading the scene. This is one example of unintentional harm which can be prevented with a sensitivity read.
Was I supposed to know that birthdays for adopted parents are not a happy occasion? No, and that’s the point of a sensitivity reader. They can point out words, phrases, and scenes that harm others and affect the readability of a book.
Who Needs a Sensitivity Reader?
Not everyone needs a sensitivity reader. Authors writing books involving contentious issues or marginalized groups will benefit from feedback sensitivity readers can provide.
Consider a sensitivity reader if:
- Your subject matter, both fiction and non-fiction, contains information about marginalized groups. You have extensively researched these groups for your writing, but are not a member of these groups.
- You are proactive and want to include an appropriate mix of characters.
- You are reissuing your book with changes made to reflect current times.
- You are an author of children’s literature. Children need to feel included. Early exposure to diverse living conditions and characters is a good thing.
- You are an author of young adult literature. This is the time in people’s lives where other’s words and actions steer young adults. Proper phrasing and word usage are essential to young adult mental health.
- Your business is interested in improving its marketing materials to meet a broader audience.
- You are an academic writer, and your materials and test questions need to be relatable to a large audience.
The Role of a Sensitivity Reader
A sensitivity reader does not edit or proofread manuscripts. Sensitivity readers only provide feedback on where offensive language or scenes need to be removed or changed.
Sensitivity readers, like beta readers, do not have to be professional editors. They can be an avid reader from a group the author wishes to portray accurately.
However, professional editors, like myself, have ongoing education, current experience, and tools to work with these issues. For example, editors have formatting tools that improve readability for the blind and deaf. Most editors also have the following style guide types, which help steer us in recognizing and reporting cultural differences and rewording text appropriately:
Censorship or rewriting history is not the role of a sensitivity reader. The author always decides whether or not to act on the feedback a sensitivity reader gives them. But if an author employs a sensitivity reader, they should strongly consider the advice they paid for.
The cost of contracting a sensitivity reader will pale compared to the cost of bad reviews or offended readers who won’t read an author’s next book.
Increasing literacy is one of my core values. By improving word choices and including groups typically excluded from literature, we can minimize negligence of marginalized groups and help readers feel more connected to characters and books. This results in more people wanting and willing to read. Increased literacy rates equal more readers, and that is the ultimate goal.
Keep the conversation going, and leave a comment about what you found interesting about sensitivity readers. If you are interested in learning more about how a sensitivity read service could help your business or writing, please contact me. I’d love to help.