Sensitivity Reader Guidelines

Writers for Diversity

Eliana West & C. Morgan Kennedy

©Writers for Diversity All Rights Reserved

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For writers who come from a position of relative privilege, and who wish to write stories that reflect diverse and multicultural worlds, a sensitivity reader can be a helpful tool in avoiding harmful stereotypes and assumptions about a character’s culture, sexual orientation or disability. 

 

A sensitivity reader reads through a manuscript for issues regarding stereotypes, bias, identity and negative or offensive language. Sensitivity readers can help identify problematic situations and language for writers writing outside of their experience. A sensitivity reader is there to help avoid mistakes but they cannot guarantee you won’t make a mistake. At the end of the day this is a subjective process and it does not guarantee that others will not have issues with your work. Engaging with a sensitivity reader can be an effective tool for writers to avoid writing stereotypes that the writer may not recognize.

 

Here are a few common-sense guidelines for both readers and writers:

  • As the writer, it is important to clearly communicate what you are looking for from your sensitivity reader. 

  • Just as we ask readers to “show don’t tell” actively engage with your writer, and ask don’t assume. 

  • Our job is not to lecture or scold. This process requires thoughtful and respectful dialogue from both the writer and reader.  Readers, understand that the writer is stepping out of their comfort zone and trying something new. Asking for help can be intimidating. 

  • Readers, it’s okay for the writer to question your critique, this is a learning process. 

  • As a reader, you can’t take what the writer is trying to say personally. Your writer is entitled to their viewpoint and it may not match yours. It is important that the reader not impose their own ideology on the writer. 

For Sensitivity Readers:
If you are new to sensitivity reading, here are some pointers on how to do a sensitivity read. After reading the manuscript text you may want to:
 

  • Include a general disclaimer that states that the author has the ultimate responsibility for the work and that regardless of how much thought goes into a book someone somewhere may find something offensive.

  • Consider organizing your comments into sections like: Hero, Heroine, Clothing, Hair, Socioeconomic Standing, Family, Travel, etc. or other major themes covered in the work. Utilizing sections will help organize your thoughts and make some difficult topics easier for the writer to digest.

  • Include links to blog posts and articles that provide deeper insight into a specific topic. For example, when discussing African-American skin tones, the Writing with Color blog has a great article - https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/words-for-skin-tone-how-to-describe-skin-color

For Writers Wanting Sensitivity Reads:

If you are a writer who has included a diverse character and are unsure of how to go about finding and utilizing a sensitivity reader, consider the following:

  • Ask your author friends if they have a recommendation for a sensitivity reader.

  • Be prepared to pay for a sensitivity read like you would any other type of manuscript edit. As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to pay $75-$250 per read. 

  • Clearly articulate what you need / want and your timeline / deadline.

  • DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER…sometimes feedback from a sensitivity reader uncovers biases and prejudices you didn’t realize you had. This self-discovery is all part of the process of being more inclusive. It is these unknown biases Writers for Diversity seeks to dissolve.

  • Take a hard look at your alpha and beta readers. See if you can’t include readers from the same backgrounds as your characters prior to publication.

Today’s turbulent social and political climate make diverse stories even more important. Readers want and need stories that reflect the complexity of contemporary life and many writers want to write them. Through inclusive storytelling, we can better understand and appreciate ourselves and each other.