What is sensitivity reading?
A sensitivity reader or sensitivity editor is someone with writing and editing skills who can draw on their lived experiences to help identify cultural inaccuracies, biases, misrepresentations, stereotypes, and harmful language in your work as it relates to communities they’re part of.
Sensitivity reading isn’t about censorship. If you’re writing historical fiction you might do your own research into the time period, or you might talk to a historian. If you’re writing a medical drama and want it to feel more realistic you might talk to someone who works in a hospital. When it comes to consulting with an expert on how to represent marginalised cultures, communities, or characters we call it sensitivity reading, but it’s really just a consultation with someone who knows more about a specific topic so you can work some of that information into your writing. As the writer it’s your choice what you do with the advice you get.
What I can consult on
My work focuses on disability, neurodiversity and chronic illness, queerness and transness, and Jewish culture. If you want to know more about the specific perspectives I can speak from or you’re interested in hiring me email email@example.com.
My specific experiences include:
- Being a cripple, including using a cane and wheelchair
- Being non-binary/genderqueer and being part of trans communities for several years
- Becoming disabled as a teenager
- Bisexuality, pansexuality, and demisexuality
- Navigating difficult medical and welfare systems as a queer disabled young person
- Jewish culture
- Jewish history
What to expect
A sensitivity reader will have a specific focus or focuses. You might have asked them to consult on how you’ve written a specific culture, or disability, or queer identity, etc. Their job is to give you feedback on those topics and how they fit into your work as a whole. It’s not their job to do more general editing like proof reading, story structure, etc. unless you’ve also hired them as an editor.
Sensitivity readers can help with accuracy and support writers to make informed choices.
I did a sensitivity read for a short sci-fi story set a few hundred years in the future. The setting made it clear that this future society had much better medical tech than us, and one of the secondary characters was transgender. The way that character talked about their experiences with the medical system didn’t make sense- they were complaining about medical science not being able to do things that we can already do today.
Because this author wasn’t trans and didn’t know much about medical transition the assumptions they made about trans healthcare were inaccurate. As a sensitivity reader I explained what trans people who want to medically transition have access to today, and the writer used that information to improve their world building. It was up to them to decide whether to change what medical options their character had access to or introduce other factors to explain their limited options.
Sensitivity readers can look at broad topics or specific questions
Most commonly a writer will contact a sensitivity reader and ask them to give feedback on how a/some specific group or groups are represented, and the sensitivity reader will look at the whole work and any aspects of that representation.
Sensitivity readers can also consult on specific questions. In one sensitivity read for a story set in an alternate universe a cis writer wasn’t sure what pronouns would seem realistic for a non-binary character. I talked to them about common and uncommon pronouns, where neopronouns come from, and different ways we choose which ones to use and helped them adapt that for their setting.
Sensitivity readers can identify stereotypes and harmful representation
When marginalised people are written in ways that demonise or stigmatise us or reinforce existing stereotypes it can hurt marginalised readers to see that, and it can make people outside our communities more likely to believe negative or stereotypical ideas about us. A good sensitivity reader will be clear about which aspects of a work are outright harmful.
That doesn’t mean that marginalised characters have to be perfect or can’t be villains. All demographics should be represented broadly, and there are assholes in every community. But the social context that we live in affects how a text will be read, and understanding more about how marginalised communities are already perceived lets writers take that context into account.