My Take on ‘Sensitivity Readers’

I just finished writing a novel that has an extremely controversial element: the protagonist is a black man, and it’s written from his point of view. It’s controversial because these days, cultural appropriation is a real issue in the field of fiction, and I’m white.

I won’t wade into that debate right now; but I do think that a careful author should make every effort to make sure the community he’s writing about is presented as accurately and authentically as possible. That’s simply doing your job as a writer: you want to tell the truth.

To that end, I hired a “sensitivity reader” to look over my novel while it’s in the editing stage. I got the idea originally from my daughter, who works in the publishing industry. Originally, I was against the idea, thinking it was nothing more than an attempt to make sure authors conformed to the politically correct demands of the current era.

I was wrong.

My daughter set me straight, explaining that a sensitivity reader makes sure your work doesn’t misrepresent a community — in this case, the black community. That idea was one I could get behind, since I wanted to make my work as honest as possible.

I’m glad I listened to her. I hired an African-American woman who’s very experienced as a sensitivity reader (in fact, she even teaches others how to do it). She read my book and gave me extensive feedback on where I got it right — and, more importantly, where I got it wrong.

Her thorough critique was eye-opening, to put it mildly. She pointed out numerous instances of my subconscious bias at work — how I was pigeonholing inner-city blacks, for instance. How some of my assumptions about that community were based not on reality but on negative stereotypes.

Sometimes my word choices were wrong, and sometimes my dialogue didn’t properly reflect how a black kid would say something, for instance. The bias wasn’t intentional, but that didn’t make it any less real.

I did extensive research in preparation for the book and during the writing process, trying to get everything right. But I didn’t examine my pre-existing biases nearly closely enough. My sensitivity reader shined a bright light on that, and I’m grateful.

Overall, hiring her was perhaps the best decision I’ve made since finishing the book. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every single penny. Seeing through her eyes made me much more aware of the mistakes I was making.

Ultimately, my sensitivity reader made my novel so much better than it would have been if I hadn’t hired her. It wasn’t about censoring my work, a common objection for those who (like me, previously) hear the phrase “sensitivity reader.” It wasn’t about cultural appropriation.

It was about improving my book by making it more truthful, more authentic. More real. She did that, and without her input, the book would have reinforced stereotypes that are simply wrong.

Sensitivity reading is a fairly new category in the publishing industry, although it’s seen an explosion over the last few years. I hope it keeps growing, and more people get training in it and learn how to do it well. I’ve seen first-hand just how much of a difference it can make.

So count me in with those who see the tremendous value — even a necessity, I’d say, in cases like mine — of sensitivity readers.

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