Sensitivity readings: An essential part of writing

So you’ve spend a lot of time writing and revising a story. You’re getting to a point where it’s in pretty good shape. Maybe you’ve had some beta readers look through all or part of it. Maybe you’ve workshopped it.

Before you release it upon the world (or upon literary agents), consider pausing for a sensitivity reading.

What’s a sensitivity reading? This is a beta reading process where someone with the appropriate qualifications and/or experiences reads your manuscript to critique how you’ve represented marginalized or underrepresented groups that you don’t belong to. The purpose is to make sure you’re not using insensitive language or descriptions, not perpetuating stereotypes, not misrepresenting a group or experience, and generally not being unintentionally offensive.

Why is this important? We have a responsibility, as writers, to make sure we’re not inaccurately representing a person or group, or presenting a person or group in a harmful or offensive way. Even if we do belong to a group that we’re representing, it’s still a good idea to get perspectives from other people who belong to/have expertise in those groups.

Will this change my story? The reader won’t actually change your story, but they will point things out that are problematic so that you can revise. So yes, your story might change – but wouldn’t you rather do the extra work to make sure you’re not harming or offending anyone?

But my character is supposed to be unlikable! That’s different. It’s fine to write a character who is generally unlikable as long as it’s clear that the character is intentionally unlikable, and there’s a purpose to that character and their flaws. In that case, a sensitivity reader may help you understand when you’ve gone too far, or ask some important questions about how the character is presented.

What sorts of things do sensitivity readers read for? Quiethouse Editing has a great list of topics/identities that you might want to hire a sensitivity reader to look at. Scroll down past the header image and there’s a list to the right.

Have you ever done this? Yep! I look for gender issues, representations of certain chronic illnesses, bi/pansexual representation, and representations of fat people. I mostly do gender readings.

What sorts of things have you found? Just to give everyone an example of the sorts of things a sensitivity reader can help with, here are some traps that writers fall into with women/feminine characters:

  • Spending a lot of time describing feminine bodies, particularly in a sexualized way; sexualization of young/underage feminine characters’ bodies; describing older/fat/post-partem/non-white/non-conventional bodies in terms that relay disgust, disapproval or dismissal; fetishizing bodies or body parts
  • Describing feminine bodies but not masculine bodies (i.e., describing a woman by telling the reader how she looks, while describing a man by telling the reader his interests/behaviors/traits)
  • The woman/feminine characters who have value in the narrative are valued for their physical appeal to men/masculine characters, and/or their ability to bolster/build up/encourage/save men/masculine characters
  • The woman/feminine character engages in stereotypical “feminine” behaviors and activities to excess (i.e., shopping addiction)
  • The woman/feminine character’s backstory or motivation includes a sexual assault
  • The woman/feminine character gets talked over or lectured to by the man/masculine character
  • Woman/feminine character has to be rescued, taught, led, or otherwise motivated by man/masculine character; women/feminine characters are reactive rather than proactive
  • Inauthentic reactions in general; women who are sexually assaulted and discover that some part of them enjoyed it is a particular pet peeve of mine (not kidding, I’ve seen this)
  • Woman/feminine character is flat or two-dimensional; you’re not sure what her inner thoughts are, what she’s feeling, etc.
  • Fails the Bechdel test
  • Infantilization of women/feminine characters
  • A “strong woman” character who has traditionally masculine traits
  • Lesbian character falls for a man; lesbian character falls for a straight woman; lesbian characters meet some tragic end

And that’s not even everything, but this gives you a taste of what a sensitivity reader might catch and question. Some of these things are in the DON’T DO THIS category (women don’t enjoy sexual assault; don’t sexualize teenagers). Some of these things are in the BE CAREFUL WITH THIS category (woman with a shopping addiction).

Point is, your book won’t resonate with agents or readers if the character is offensive, stereotypical, or inauthentic. Nor will today’s readers tolerate it – writers will be called out for insensitive portrayals.

How much does this cost? Be prepared to spend around $250-300. Rates vary per reader and length of the story.

So…if I get a sensitivity reading, that means no one will criticize me, right? Wrong! Sensitivity readings are subjective; different people will have different critiques. And there will always be people who don’t like your writing, no matter what you do. This process won’t save you from criticism, and can’t guarantee that you won’t offend someone. It can, however, help catch and eliminate any overt or covert bias, offensiveness, inauthenticity, and misrepresentation.

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