What is a sensitivity reader and do I need one?

If you’re new to the idea of sensitivity reading, you’re in the right place. Sensitivity reading can feel off-putting for some authors for a variety of reasons, not least of which is fear, but it needn’t be an intimidating stage of book publishing. In fact, you should be excited for a sensitivity read, just like you are for your editing.

. . . Right?

Okay, fine. While I’m not likely going to get you excited about more editing, I hope to give you a better idea of what to expect from a sensitivity read, how to find the right readers, and why you should think about it like you do your editing: a sensitivity read gives you the opportunity to achieve additional accuracy. If you want a triple-A approach, that’s the one.

What is a sensitivity reader?

Sensitivity readers are an important step in ascertaining the accuracy of your text. They alert you to moments where you’ve unknowingly repeated a stereotype or crossed a cultural line, and also let you know if you’re right. If your portrayal is true. You might not get the difference between a funnel cake and an elephant ear, but fried pastry aficionados do! No quicker way to alienate your reader than to show you don’t know them at all, despite writing about them—even though your intention to be inclusive was genuine.

Sensitivity readers are trained or have a vested history and personal experience with the material you’re testing. You have a personal and vested interest in the culture you’re from. You understand the ins-and-outs: what makes a joke a good one, who speaks with what kind of accent or dialect, the cultural touch points it takes years to use unconsciously. Your sensitivity reader has this level of familiarity with their group, as well. Why wouldn’t you want someone with that depth of experience to review central characters, plot points, and even cultures and languages?

Plus, sensitivity readers give you a fantastic opportunity to learn about your own unconscious biases. These usually come out in the phrases we use in dialogue or the way we describe objects and people. For example, the Canadian character that says “eh” every other sentence (seriously, we don’t do that) or comparing a Black character’s skin colour to coffee or another consumable.

Did you mean to do it? No. When you think about it, is it weird? Yep. Can you see the unintentional harm it can cause? I sure hope so. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, so find someone who can help pull the veil back. You’ll be a better writer and a better human by fighting your unconscious biases.

You can get exceptionally specific with the type of reader you’re looking for, based on your niche, to further how authentic your story is and ensure you’re not overstating your expertise—you are an authority on your subject, no doubt, but we are all subject to the authority of our readers. It’s really irritating to find a poor representation of your culture, your sports team, your gender. If, as an author, you’re using stereotypes intentionally and for effect, who better to ask than a sensitivity reader versed in the material you’re covering if this is coming across?

This is not to say don’t research your book. If you’re not researching, you are the problem. You don’t know what you don’t know, as the saying goes, and you can easily perpetuate unconscious bias and harm through your work. If you are entering territory where you recognize there is call for more inclusivity and consideration—like with Asian, BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+ characters—and you don’t personally identify with that key group, consider finding a sensitivity reader to help you create authentic engagement with your text.

Where do I find a sensitivity reader?

You can find sensitivity readers on social media, everywhere. A great many of them will include terms like accuracy reader or “sensitivity reader” on their profiles, and some are very active in discussions and groups centered around accuracy and authenticity. Take some time to get to know the content, how these individuals and groups conduct themselves, and get an idea for what you can expect when engaging a sensitivity reader. By searching your topic in these groups, you may even find your perfect match has already answered a question related to what you’re working on.

If you’re not on social media, that’s okay. There are a lot of sensitivity readers with websites. Check out the type of work they do and send out polite queries to find the right fit. It’s worth asking for recommendations if the people you initially contact aren’t able to work on your project.

You can also contact local book stores and libraries to see if there are any applicable groups or resources that will help you find qualified people. (Librarians are awesome.)

How to become a sensitivity reader

If you have lived experience in a traditionally underrepresented group, you are immediately a candidate. Sensitivity readers are in growing demand as more and more companies, governments, and individuals recognize the limits to their own perspectives. While there’s an argument to be made that some are hiring sensitivity readers simply as lip service, the work’s there and funding this aspect of the publishing industry. Plus the material delivered is still valuable to the receiver, whether they were initially open to it or not.

Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt who takes the step to hire a sensitivity reader is one of the central requirements of being a sensitivity reader. It’s an incredibly difficult task in many cases, as you’re often hired to assess accuracy in things like how race, gender, or disabilities are portrayed. Are you prepared to dive into that compassionately and teach the author a bit about the gaps in their knowledge? Stand your ground when the material is so intrinsically flawed that you can’t see a positive outcome for the author, even with significant revisions? Take some time to consider the emotional labour you’re willing to put into your work.

Due to the often triggering nature of the material, a lot of sensitivity readers only work part time. If you get involved in some networking groups, you’ll soon find that there is a huge support system based on understanding the toll the material takes. If that’s not for you, no problem, but you should consider having a safe space to decompress so you’re not carrying the trauma of what you review.

Another benefit to developing a network of other sensitivity readers is the ongoing education opportunities you’d be exposing yourself to. Engaging in discussions around issues raised during a recent reading, learning more about how companies are responding to accuracy and authenticity insights, and discovering best practices in terms of how to engage with the material you’re reviewing all help increase your professionalism and effectiveness.

Consider also taking some courses on editing to help with these items. Not everything out there applies to sensitivity readings, of course, but look for content focused on developmental editing and manuscript assessment. Since you’re not looking at spelling (unless pertinent to the reading you’re doing) or grammar, you will be more interested in concepts of story framing, conflict, character development, etc. Being able to provide insight on how believable a character is or if the character fits into the story at all will round out what level of feedback you provide. Additionally, sharing statistics and other pertinent pieces of information with the author based on your intimate knowledge of the subject matter will be an invaluable resource for the author to draw from during revisions—and reinforce your suggestions.

Things to keep in mind when hiring a sensitivity reader

Your editor should not be your only sensitivity reader. They’ll give you tons of insight, sure, but you should consider someone who is professionally invested in the type of work you’re doing. Does your editor only work on the content you submitted? Probably not. It happens, but it’s rare. Your sensitivity reader, however, will focus their scope in one niche and the related pathways. Typically this involves a class of people and then the associated trauma management, which makes many sensitivity readers great self-help book reviewers.

What you should look for when hiring a sensitivity reader:

  • Qualifications. What overlap exists between them and the content?
  • Professional. They understand the emotional labour involved and submit their notes in a helpful way.
  • Pay. As of 2019, sensitivity readers averaged .005 to .01 USD per word ($175 to $350 every 35,000 words).
  • Boundaries. They are not beta readers, nor editors, so don’t ask them for feedback on if they ‘liked’ your book (or, worse, if they’d review it) or for them to make sentence-level changes.

Keep these things in mind, and you should have an excellent experience with your sensitivity read. Share your stories below, or email me directly with questions about sensitivity reading.

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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