Editing Tips Part 8: Sensitivity Reading

Sensitivity reading is a term becoming more common in the writing community, but what does it mean? A sensitivity reader is someone who has experience in a certain situation or condition and understands and is able to communicate areas of misunderstanding, stereotyping, or bias regarding a particular topic. These situations, conditions, or topics could range from personal trauma, such as sexual violence, intimate partner violence, or child abuse, to medical trauma, such cancer treatment or traumatic birth, to a disability, such as deafness, blindness, or an invisible illness, among others. While there are a multitude of scenarios that may necessitate involving a sensitivity reader at some stage of the self-editing process, for the purposes of this post, we are going to operate with the protagonist being the character who is involved in or dealing with a sensitive situation. When determining whether to seek the services of a sensitivity reader, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Topic. What is the sensitive issue you’ve included in your story? Is it part of the plot, or part of the character’s daily life? For example, a character who has just left an abusive relationship would be healing from that abusive relationship throughout your story in some way, whereas something that’s a part of a character’s daily life, such as using a wheelchair, would likely be something that’s become normal to them (unless the addition of the wheelchair is a recent development).

Impact. Depending on the sensitive topic, how frequently it’s referenced throughout your manuscript is the next thing to assess. If your character is healing from or processing a recent event that relates to the sensitive topic, we’d recommend seeking the services of a sensitivity reader earlier in the self-editing process, such as during the alpha stage. Author Katherine Turner, who has endured intimate partner violence and has written about it, shares the following:

“If you’re writing about being in an abusive marriage and the story centers around that life and trying to escape it and you have no personal experience of being in an abusive relationship, you need to involve a sensitivity reader at a minimum really early on (like alpha reader stage) because that could result in significant changes to the storyline itself. If, on the other hand, there is a secondary or tertiary character who is a rape victim and there isn’t much space devoted to that character in the book, you can likely involve a sensitivity reader closer to final proofreading (but before, of course).”

Experience. The feedback of a sensitivity reader could necessitate additional research or adjusting portions of your story, which is usually better to do at an alpha stage of editing. Additionally, we recommend getting multiple sensitivity readers’ perspectives, because even if they have similar experiences, the nuances and ways a situation or condition effects each of their lives will vary. When depicting a situation or condition you have not personally experienced, it’s important to have a well-rounded and balanced understanding of what it’s truly like.

Ultimately, sensitivity readers can be an important part of the fiction-writing process. In a literary culture that is constantly striving for greater diversity and representation, working with readers who have shared experience with your character(s) is an excellent way to ensure your character’s journey (as impacted by the sensitive topic) is depicted realistically, fairly, and in a manner that’s considerate for the communities they’re a part of. By working with sensitivity readers, you can rest assured that you’ve produced a manuscript with as much compassion as possible.

Note: There are sensitivity reader directories available online. One we recommend is here.

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Editing Tips Part 8:
Sensitivity Reading