By Sarah Brodhead
Why a Sensitivity Reader?
Your cast of characters in any story is likely to be diverse, which means most of those characters won’t be like you. In a circumstance where you write characters that have a different race, ethnicity, sex, gender, abilities, or even world view from yourself, it’s good to run that by someone who embodies those traits.
A sensitivity reader’s sole job is to review areas in which you have added a character that shares a trait with the reader but not yourself. They also ensure you aren’t accidentally perpetuating any harmful or upsetting stereotypes or language surrounding that character.
While you have a unique and wonderful perspective to share with the world, that perspective is also limited. If you are rich, you do not honestly know what it is like to be poor. If you are of one ethnicity, you have not experienced what it is like to be another. And if you’re non-disabled, you do not know what struggles a disabled person experiences every day. Even if you have one disability and your character has another, the struggle may still be foreign to you.
You could (and should) go through copious amounts of research and learn about others’ experiences to dig into what it would be like to be in your character’s place. The problem, however, is that none of that research will give you direct feedback on what you have written.
A sensitivity reader who already has the lived experience that you are researching will look at the work you have done and tell you if there is anything you still need to do to get it ready for the public.
The Best Sensitivity Readers
Like any other form of reader feedback, sensitivity readers can be more or less helpful. While you could ask a friend or family member who has similar traits or lived experience to the character you are writing to review your work, you should make sure they will be forthright and not hold back on any criticism.
A sensitivity reader that sees an issue with your character but fails to inform you isn’t doing you any favors. Once your book is published for reviews and eventually audience feedback, having offensive or irritating material in your book will not help your public image. Once your public image is damaged, it’s tough to recover.
You need a reader who is not afraid to hurt your feelings and who you trust to give you the hard feedback.
Finding a Sensitivity Reader
Perhaps you are lucky and have a friend or family member to provide quality feedback for your sensitivity reading. If you go this route, compensate them fairly even if they offer to read for free. It is better to discuss compensation ahead of time, even if it is a nice lunch or a coffee gift card.
If you do not know anyone to provide relevant feedback, hire a sensitivity reader (or a few, depending on how many different angles you need feedback on). You can find sensitivity readers on sites such as Upwork or Fiverr, or Google freelance sensitivity readers.
Sensitivity reading is still a relatively new concept, and some of the infrastructure is being put into place to connect writers with readers. It might take a little bit of extra work and research to find the perfect reader for your project. In the end, having that feedback could make or break the public perception not only of your work but also of you.