What is a Sensitivity Reader?
The books we write reflect the world around us, whether they’re contemporary, fantasy, or even futuristic. It only makes sense that our stories should also represent the diversity of the people around us! Doing so enrichens our books and allows more readers—across all communities—to see themselves in our characters.
However, it's essential that our diverse casts of characters be portrayed with authenticity and respect. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently harm someone you're trying to empathize with. That’s where sensitivity readers come in.
What is a sensitivity reader?
Sensitivity readers, also called diversity readers, are beta readers with first-hand experience in the communities you wish to write about. Informed by their own experiences and trained to spot microaggressions or misconceptions, they are hired by authors (and publishing houses) to provide feedback on an author's manuscript about pitfalls the writer may be unfamiliar with. This could include harmful tropes, cultural inaccuracies, internal bias, insensitive representation, and other unintentionally problematic content.
What are the benefits of hiring a sensitivity reader?
An obvious benefit of hiring a sensitivity reader is improving the authenticity of your story and preventing any harmful representation. You can hire a sensitivity reader to critique your portrayal of characters from all kinds of diverse groups, such as persons who are LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, disabled, neurodivergent, or from a specific geographic region. Sensitivity readers can also help with portraying persons with mental illness, survivors of abuse and trauma, those who’ve had an untraditional upbringing or who have unusual occupations, and many more diverse groups of people.
Whatever your sensitivity reader is uniquely equipped to help you with, you can expect them to point out places where your gaps in knowledge may negatively affect your story. This could include:
- Inauthentic character behaviors
- Two-dimensional character-building due to stereotypes
- Offensive or insensitive descriptions of marginalized characters
- Cultural or historical inaccuracies
- An author’s own biases that result in embedded microaggressions
They will also offer solutions on how to address these issues. (However, hiring a sensitivity reader does not exempt your manuscript from further critique. As a writer, you should do your best to educate yourself on any cultures you're portraying, as you would with any other part of your novel's research.)
Another, often overlooked advantage of sensitivity reading is how it will enhance your story overall by making it multidimensional and more richly imagined. Sensitivity readers don’t just point out problems; they also help you improve the depth of your book’s setting and characters. For example, if your book is set in New York City, you want the scenes you write to feel as vivid and real to your readers as if they were walking through Manhattan themselves! What better way to accomplish that than to get the perspective of someone who lives there?
The same holds true for any cultural elements you're writing about— your characters' neighborhoods, foods, languages, customs, and more. Authenticity strengthens the believability of your narrative and keeps your reader immersed in your story's world.
When should you consider using a sensitivity reader?
Sensitivity readers are most often used by authors who are not members of the communities they’re writing about but wish to make their portrayals as accurate as possible. For example, if you are a cisgender, heterosexual author writing an LGBTQIA+ character, hiring a sensitivity reader from that community will help you avoid stereotypical or insensitive depictions.
An author may hire a sensitivity reader even though they themselves are a part of the under-represented group depicted in their book. This is because the breadth of experiences within any community is vast and distinctive, and no one individual can capture all the intersections of cultural identities. For example, an author of one ethnicity who lives in a large city may seek the perspective of someone of the same ethnic group who lives in a small, rural town. Or an author living with a mental health disorder might still wish to hire a sensitivity reader to help flesh out a character who has a different disorder.
In some cases, authors may feel that a sensitivity reader is unnecessary because, while they may not be a member of the marginalized group in question, they have spent a lot of time with people from that community.
Let's look at an example. An author might feel equipped to write a Polynesian character because they grew up in Hawaii, or because their spouse is a native Hawaiian. Perhaps because of their proximity to this community, they feel strongly about speaking out against hate toward Asian American Pacific Islander communities, having witnessed it in their own everyday life. However, that author's book may still benefit from the lived experience of a beta reader who is Polynesian. After all, it's one thing to witness prejudice, and quite another to experience it your entire life. This is where a sensitivity reader may be essential in helping your book accomplish what you’ve set out to do.
As you can see, there are a variety of factors to weigh when deciding whether or not to hire a sensitivity reader. To determine whether or not you need to take this step, start by asking yourself the following:
- Am I outside of the community I’m writing about?
- If not, does this community have a wide range of experiences, of which mine is only one?
- Are there significant limits to my experience with this group despite my proximity to this community?
If you answered "yes" to any of the above, you may want to consider hiring a sensitivity reader as part of your beta reading and revision process.
Where can you find sensitivity readers?
It’s important to note that sensitivity reading is skilled work, and, like other kinds of editors, these readers should be paid for their services. The typical range to expect is anywhere between $200 to $300 per book. Directories like those at Writing Diversely or Editors of Color can help you find the perfect beta readers to provide feedback on your characters and story. Alternatively, you can seek out critique partners in writing communities such as the Writing Mastery Community, but keep in mind that a critique partnership is a two-way street!
Remember to accept your reader's feedback with grace if you do choose to work with one. Thoughtfully listening to and incorporating a sensitivity reader’s feedback will help your book achieve more depth and vividness. After all, the aim of a sensitivity read, like any part of the revision process, is to help you make your story the best it can be—one that reflects the world around us uniquely, authentically, and inclusively!