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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!