Do's and Don'ts of Using Sensitivity Readers
What to keep in mind when you're hiring for a sensitivity read
I feel the need to note up top that I had to look up the apostrophization (is that even a word?) of “do’s and don’ts,” and apparently no style guide agrees with another. Ah, language.
Now, on to sensitivity readers. I’ve seen a lot of concerned discussion lately on how to approach this — as well as some misconceptions — so before reader questions started coming in, I thought I’d write up some general context people might find helpful when looking to use a sensitivity reader.
First, I’ll give you my own mixed feelings up front. Though I think the push for sensitivity readers is generally good, I’m not the only person in an underrepresented demographic who feels some conflict on the topic. I worry that they’ll decrease diversity, with writers thinking they need to pay for a checkmark on every flash of representation. I worry people will use them as shortcuts, skipping the hard work of research or of listening to many perspectives even though no demographic is a monolith where one person can represent the whole… and even though the purpose of a sensitivity reader is overlapping but distinct from the purpose of the no-less-necessary effort of research. I worry that publishers will use sensitivity readers as shields, which has happened already; that people will have unrealistic expectations and think checking off “sensitivity reader” means a magical stamp of approval; or that sensitivity reading can problematically boil us underrepresented folks down to only one flat aspect of identity. Oh, and I dislike the name — I’d prefer something that uses “beta” or “consultant” in it, to emphasize the expertise of the position — but “sensitivity reader” is the common parlance, so I’ll use it here.
Despite all these reservations, I do think critiquers giving such perspectives are vitally important — heck, I was doing it with my own writing before it had a name. And I’ve done sensitivity reads for others, and I hang out with a lot of other people who do them, too. I am, on the whole, glad writers and publishers are hiring people to point out the weaknesses they can’t see in writing demographics not their own.
Happily, most people who want to hire a sensitivity reader want to be part of the solution, not the problem! So let’s talk about how to do that.
(I feel pretty confident from the communities I run in that this is going to be mostly decent advice, by the way, but individual sensitivity readers’ opinions may still differ. Not monoliths! We’re very much not monoliths.)
Things to Understand When Hiring a Sensitivity Reader
Sensitivity reading can be extremely emotionally fraught. You are asking someone to willfully put themselves in a position where they could be reading something that feels like being poked with sharp needles, then finding a way to comment on it while striving to be nonconfrontational, and then still risking the author starting a conflict with them about it. Yes, you are paying them, but frankly the going rates for it are not really enough to cover all that. So just… keep this in mind.
No demographic is a monolith. No one person can give you a stamp of approval on anything, or promise you no one will ever be offended by your work. That’s not what this is. Instead, it’s about trying to catch where the portrayal rings false in a way that’s invisible to you, or where what you put on the page is coming off way different from what you intend. It’s about making your writing better and looking to catch ways you might be hurting segments of your readers when you don’t mean to because there was a connotation you were missing. Sensitivity readers can help with all that. But they can’t tell you that you’ve magically achieved the state of Unimpeachably Uncriticizable — nobody can, because, well, that’s impossible!
And that’s not their purpose. Just like betas and crit partners, sensitivity readers are there to provide feedback to help you make your writing better. In this case, specialized, valuable feedback. But just as your critique partners are not responsible if your book doesn’t sell or if it gets a bad review, so too are sensitivity readers just one part of helping improve your manuscript.
Sensitivity readers are part of a much larger, much messier tapestry when it comes to responsibly writing diverse characters. This includes research. Listening. Realizing that humans are so different and so messy that not everything is clear-cut, but learning about how your words may be read, and using that to construct better worlds and characters. It’s all work, and it can be hard — so hard, I work at it every day and still make mistakes! But it’s part of the work of being a writer. Just like learning the craft of prose, or how to structure pacing. If you think of your sensitivity readers as one piece of improving your book — an important piece, but still just one — and part of a much larger, much messier conversation with lots and lots of different perspectives and experiences, you’ll be off to a good start.
Still with me? Let’s move on to the do’s and don’ts.
Do all the research you can before hiring a sensitivity reader. Read, follow, listen. Understand as much as you possibly can.
In particular, read #ownvoices fiction and nonfiction by authors in the demographics you want to portray. Follow them online. Read their criticism, listen to their voices.
Be prepared for a critique that may be painful or embarrassing to read, and be prepared to accept it gracefully.
Be prepared to make sweeping changes, if necessary.
Understand going into it what sensitivity reading is and isn’t. For instance, I very much appreciate when someone comes to me for a sensitivity read and they tell me they understand I can’t speak for everyone and that they’d appreciate me being one of multiple perspectives they’re seeking out.
Get multiple perspectives, in whatever way possible, since no one person can ever be a complete authority on any demographic. Not everyone can afford multiple sensitivity reads, but this is where research and listening comes in.
Make sure you’ve done enough research that if your sensitivity readers disagree, or if something one of them says sounds questionable to you, that you can use that as a starting point to figure out more. (This is not an encouragement to ignore your sensitivity readers — rather, have at least enough 101 understanding yourself to know when something sounds off, so you can look more closely into it, get more perspectives, and make sure you know what’s going on.)
For novels, ask your sensitivity readers if they’d like to be in the acknowledgments of the book — definitely make the offer, but with no expectation that they’ll say yes. Also ask if they’d like to be generally acknowledged or specifically thanked for the subject they helped with. Some sensitivity readers prefer not to be acknowledged — sometimes because, unfortunately, there are too many authors who ignore our feedback entirely. Or sometimes because we’re not out about or are low key about that aspect of our identity (this is especially true for reads regarding health issues or queer characters).
Always be willing to own your words as your own, no matter how many sensitivity readers you had.
Do not send a sensitivity reader a bigoted book expecting them to help you “fix” it, and please, please don’t advise other writers to do this either (for example, if you’re critiquing someone and see monstrous problems). This is WAY out of line with the pay rates sensitivity reading generally commands. Sensitivity readers are there to help identify mistakes that were invisible to the writer, not to give an overwhelming 101 class.
If you can already see the problems in your book, work to fix them yourself or with non-sensitivity-reading editors or betas. Sensitivity readers are a more final step, when you’ve worked hard to purge any issues and it’s in good enough shape that you won’t be able to catch on your own where you might still be tripping up.
(I most often see the above as advice given by well-intentioned writers when, say, they run across a bigoted book by someone in a crit group. I suspect suggesting a sensitivity reader may feel like the easiest solution, but if the work is clearly bigoted it’s really not the right next step for that author. There’s so, so much more that has to come first — not to mention, please don’t inflict the manuscript on us at that stage! I sincerely can’t imagine reading a piece that was knowingly racist or homophobic and being asked to fix it.)
Do not use a sensitivity reader as a replacement for research, or as a reason for doing less research.
Please do not argue with your sensitivity reader. If you have questions, ask them respectfully. If you’re pretty sure you disagree, keep it to yourself and take it with you to think about and discuss with knowledgeable people close to you. (This is good advice for receiving any critique!)
Absolutely do not expect that your sensitivity reader can give you a rubber stamp of approval for the whole demographic.
Do not put your sensitivity reader’s name in your acknowledgments or talk about them by name publicly without getting their permission, though you should certainly offer to acknowledge them if they’d like. (See above.)
Never, ever use your sensitivity reader’s name, or the fact that you had sensitivity readers, as if it is an impenetrable shield against criticism. That criticism can still be legitimate (not a monolith!). And we are all the owners of our own words.
Don’t put an unrealistic burden on your sensitivity readers to absolve you of any and all possible missteps.
Do not — and I feel strange saying this, but I’ve heard of this happening! — do not hire a sensitivity reader and then ignore everything they say. Even if you don’t care about improving your book on those axes, it’s only going to come back to bite you in bad reviews anyway. I happen to believe that striving to write responsibly is both a moral positive and a mark of better writing, but even setting that aside, you probably care about being able to sell the book to either a publisher or readers or both. The sensitivity reader is on your team, helping you catch stuff that will put people off before it goes to print. Use that knowledge!
Sensitivity reading is a specialized and emotionally difficult job. Honestly, it’s why I don’t do it for anyone but good friends, and I have so much respect for the people who are willing to risk doing such a task for strangers. But the more you, the client, can understand all that, the more you can respect what your sensitivity readers can and can’t do for you and bring them manuscripts that already show how deeply you’ve researched and thought about all this. It’s not only the professional thing to do, but it’ll allow the whole process with your sensitivity reader to be so much better, and chances are your book will be able to get so much more out of it.
This really only scratches the surface on sensitivity reading, of course, but we’ll have to save more for another time. Questions about this or about anything else? Email me at email@example.com. Next week we’re on to the first reader questions — we’ve got sticky inquiry about another diversity topic that we’ll dig into, and a question about writers reading their own reviews.