Representation Matters is a series that explores topics of representation in writing and art. Our first guest-poster, who will explore the topic over the next few months, is Rebecca Croteau. Rebecca is an avid writer, reader and knitter, who is also quite active on twitter.
If you spend much time in the #ownvoices and #diversityinYA tags on Book Twitter, you will very quickly bump into the concept of a sensitivity reader. A quick Google search is not telling me where the term originated, but I’ve seen it used by both women of color and disabled women throughout the last year. Here’s a quick breakdown on why you need a sensitivity reader – even if you’re writing about your own marginalization! – and how they’re different from a regular beta reader. Towards the end, we’ll talk about how to find a sensitivity reader for your manuscript.
What Is A Sensitivity Reader?
So let’s start from the basics. What is a sensitivity reader?
Ideally, a sensitivity reader is a specific sort of beta reader who is brought in early in the process. Your beta reader generally reads for flow, storylines, themes, and big plot hole issues. A sensitivity reader is also working to address high level concepts in your story, although they may also be willing to look at microaggressions, line-level issues, and other specific problems.
A sensitivity reader should be a person from the marginalized group that is being represented. For example: when I wrote a story that included a non-binary person in a space romance, I asked a trans friend to look it over. They identified a few points where I’d screwed up a pronoun, or where I’d said something insensitive without realizing it. I was able to fix them. Another example; I’m writing an erotic romance novel where the love interest is a fat guy; during one scene where the guy actually discusses his weight, I ran the scene by a friend who is heavier than me, and we revised it together until it said what I wanted to say, and it wasn’t hurting her with its words.
These are the sorts of things sensitivity readers can help you address.
Sensitivity Readers: New Twist, Old Idea
As long as I’ve been a writer, there have been people fact checking manuscripts. There are entire TV shows based around the idea of (some kind of celebrity) gets involved with (some profession) in order to learn more about it for (their art). Castle and Lucifer are two recent examples. Virtually any fiction novel where a character has to deal with a profession or expertise with which the author themselves are not familiar, they consult with an expert. You see them mentioned in acknowledgements frequently: “Thank you to Jane Doe for sharing her expertise with me regarding taxidermy and animal husbandry. Everything I got right was because of her; any mistakes I made were my own.”
So the basic concept of checking your manuscript with someone else is not new. Where people seem to get squirmy around the idea of sensitivity readers is that they seem to feel that this impinges on their “art” in some way. If you stop to check whether or not you’re – to use a recent and admittedly controversial example – hurting Indigenous teens with your portrayal of scarification and coding of darker skinned peoples as more violent, you are somehow not being true to your art.
If your art is more important than hurting actual living human beings…well. I don’t have much of anything nice to say to you.
This is probably because my writing styles and beliefs were pretty well formulated before people could post virtually anything online without any kind of professional feedback, but to me, the idea that anything I published would be presented in its unedited and unrevised form is utterly horrifying. I don’t know about you, but my first drafts suck.
When Should You Bring In A Sensitivity Reader?
This is a complicated question.
What we’re starting to see in YA publishing is that editors and publishers have realized that sensitivity readers are important to the YA community, and they want to get on board with that. I appreciate their commitment to doing better. Unfortunately, the primary practice that we’re seeing is sending out books to sensitivity readers at what seems to be the same time as early review copies.
That is way too damn late. If your book is about to be published, and you’re just now thinking about representation, this isn’t going to work out well.
I argue for bringing in sensitivity readers at several specific points.
- When you are creating scifi or fantasy, spend an hour going through your world building with someone experienced in your genre and the marginalizations you’re specifically working on. For example, I’m working on a near-future superhero novel with a friend, and we are committed to building a society where racial divisions are minimized and where people with disabilities are visible in the communities. When we’ve got the rough sketch of our world building together, I’m going to talk this through with two separate sensitivity readers to make sure that we’re not accidentally perpetuating microaggressions or outright racism/ableism.
- At the same time you solicit feedback from traditional beta readers. My writing process is that I draft something, I revise it, and then send it to people who are trusted to give good feedback. Including a sensitivity reader at this stage gives you the chance to look at any worldbuilding issues or plot level issues before you dive in to your final revisions.
- Before publication. Yes, this is way too late, but it’s still better than never. Here’s the truth of writing, especially when you’re writing for young adults and kids: when you perpetuate racist microaggressions, fat phobia, homophobia, and so forth, you are actively harming those kids who identify with these groups. If you write YA and you aren’t worried about that…again, I dunno what to say to you.
How To Find A Sensitivity Reader
Write in the Margins (FANTASTIC SITE you should check them out) maintains a list of Sensitivity Readers. You can also put out calls on your social media channels, the same way you would for regular beta readers. Sensitivity readers are often paid positions, so be prepared for that. They may cause you to have some hard conversations, with yourself, and with them.
Next time, I’ll talk more about why those conversations need to happen, and how to confront your privilege with grace.