January Speaker Night: What Does A Sensitivity Reader Do?

Writer Elliot Dunstan joined us on January 16th to tell us about sensitivity reading (SR) for our first speaker night of 2019. It was a fascinating evening and I believe we all came away with valuable information to think about.

What is sensitivity reading?

Elliot explained that in the current publishing environment, there is a growing desire for diverse books. But as authors attempt to diversify their casts of characters, they often find themselves in opposition of the old writing mantra “write what you know.”

When writers write outside of their lived experience, no matter how good their intentions, they may inadvertently write inaccurately. And, as Elliot put it, “inaccurate representation is harmful.”

Sensitivity reading is a form of editing that aims to reduce or eliminate inaccurate, harmful representation by providing an author with the perspective of someone who has the same or similar lived experience as the characters they are attempting to write.

In short, sensitivity readers use their own lived experience to supplement an author’s research, and edits for harmful stereotypes, false facts, and other inaccuracies.

How does sensitivity reading work?

Elliot explained how sensitivity reading works—the process isn’t that different from regular editing. An author or publisher hires a sensitivity reader, the reader goes through the manuscript and flags issues, and then returns it with recommendations.

However, there is one big difference: sensitivity reading is tied to the reader’s identity.  SRs use their own experiences to inform their feedback. A reader should therefore have similar experiences as those for which they are reading.  However, Elliot also acknowledged that this can be difficult and there are still debates among SRs about “how close is close enough.”

Elliot explained that providing feedback as a SR may have a higher potential for awkwardness than typical editing because of the ties to identity and other sensitive issues. Readers need to be comfortable talking about potentially personal subjects, and authors need to be prepared to check their egos and act respectfully. It is inappropriate to argue with the reader’s assessment (questioning the reader’s lived experience or identity), but asking questions is okay.

Authors should also recognize that it is impossible for a single sensitivity reader to represent an entire community and that sensitivity reading shouldn’t be the first step in writing diverse stories; authors should do their own research, and engage with the communities they are attempting to represent.

How to become a sensitivity reader

If you want to become a sensitivity reader, you should have editorial training. Sensitivity reading is a type of editing and requires knowledge of the editing process and the ability to give constructive feedback.

You then must decide what you can read for and you need to be very honest about it. Don’t read for experiences outside your own and don’t offer to read for things you’re uncomfortable discussing. Once you’re ready, you can begin promoting your services (Elliot warns that this can be awkward because sensitivity reading is so tied to your identity).

Finally, Elliot said that as a sensitivity reader, you should be prepared for some nonsense. Sensitivity reading is a relatively new editing field and not everyone recognizes its worth. Worse still, some are outright hostile to sensitivity readers because they believe their work is a form of censorship (it’s not), or because they have bigoted views to begin with. In fact, this is why some SR databases eventually shut down.

Despite the potential nonsense, sensitivity reading can be a rewarding experience. It can be an indispensable part of the editorial process for those wishing to diversify their writing.

To keep up with Elliot, follow him online at elliottdunstan.com.

Join us next month on February 20, when Nigel Beale will discuss literary tourism and podcasting!

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