{DISCUSSION} Sensitivity Readers

Should authors use sensitivity readers?

I wrote a book! *leh gasp* Alright. Alright. Fine. I wrote… a first draft of a book. It’s got a plethora of typos, probably some pacing issues, needs a bunch of extra character development, but most of all, it needs readers who aren’t me. With the book I just wrote, I decided I wanted to do something new. I am a straight, white woman who created an entire new species whose individuals come in a variety of skin colors and sexual preferences. And because of this story, I will likely be ridiculed and bashed and scolded. Why?

Because we tell writers to write what they know.

Writers are supposed to write what they know, which is generally themselves, and we have seen what this has done. We had male characters for FAR too long. We’re got more female characters, but we still have mostly white characters. 99% of those white characters are heterosexual (depending on genre, obviously). And while the white authors have attempted to branch out and write other characters, they don’t truly know what it’s like to be Black or gay or lesbian or bi or Asian or anyone other than who they are. As such, they have done a pretty poor job attempting to write characters that are representative of other people in this world.

So how do we fix that problem?

Well, for one, we can support authors who are Black or gay or lesbian or bi or Asian or a combination of those and other things. We can support and offer opportunities to all writers, which we have done. Or, I should say, are doing. We have a LONG way to go still before we can truly say the publishing industry is inclusive (as we discussed in a previous week), and the truth of the matter is that many Black people may not have access to the education or grew up with the support that white people did in regards to English and writing. Many people of varying sexual preferences are still hiding from their families and the world for fear of persecution. The world has become more supportive and welcoming, but too much of it is not. For a large portion of the world’s population, there is still much to fear and much to improve.

Another thing we can to offer more and BETTER representation (remember, quality is MORE important than quantity here) to the various people of the world is to understand. Writers do research all the time for their stories! They’ll learn history, medicine, combat. They’ll find experts in those fields to interview and then proof-read their work for accuracy and yet when it comes to people of color and of varying sexual preferences, they don’t ask. They simply assume they know everything about what it means to be those people. And how did they learn that? The internet? The news? False. Fake. Half the truth. You won’t know what it’s like to be someone other than yourself until you ASK someone. Make friends. Engage. Broaden your mind and improve your understanding because that too can improve representation in fiction.

Where the fudge am I going with this?

There are actually readers nowadays who offer their time to read your story to ensure that it is factual in regards to race, religion, mental and physical illness, sexual preference, etc. They are called sensitivity readers! And there are TONS of them. I put out a call on Twitter for sensitivity readers who were gay, lesbian, or bi and I received SO many responses within just a couple days. People RTed and liked and shared and I now have enough sensitivity readers for TWO DRAFTS! Not just one draft, but two! These people – everyone, actually – want to be represented accurately. They want to see themselves in fiction and they are willing to donate their time to ensure that happens!

And I am so grateful for them!

I took a chance with this book. I have friends who are Black. I have friends who are bi. I have asked them questions and I have done what I can to understand and incorporate my knowledge into my story, but I still asked them to read AFTER I’d written it. I still needed them to approve of how I had represented them because my knowledge is still limited. I only know their lives from what they have told me. I don’t really know what it’s like. I didn’t witness their lives first hand and only by having them read it and critique it can I offer quality, accurate representation to people who I care about and whom I call friends.

But what do you think?
Should more authors use sensitivity readers?
Leave your thoughts below!

And check out my discussion from last week:


12 thoughts on “{DISCUSSION} Sensitivity Readers”

  1. First, congratulations! i hope the next few drafts go well!

    I think being diverse in your writing is very important. I have practiced writing from a variety points of view. Some of the most “popular” stories that I have written have been from a minoriy’s POV. But it is harder to pull off in a novel length. At least for me. Yeah, my protagonist seem to be straight white males…

    Sensitivity Readers is an interesting idea. I can see where they can be useful. On the other hand, I think (hope) that any minority that reads one of my works that includes them will be happy that they were included and that I tired to avoid most stereotypes. But, as with anything else, the author does need to do some research to make sure everything comes across accurately. “Research” can be as easy as talking to people. There is also understanding that one person’s POV can be radically different from another. I can also see where a sensitivity reader can be more important if the book is from that other POV. If my main character is a straight white male, all of his observations will be filtered through those eyes. If I try my hardest to get it right but miss on occasion, well, you can blame it on that darned straight white male POV πŸ˜‰

    I will have to look into the sensitivity reader thing. I should have for my present WIP, but it is a bit late now… I did have a diverse group beta-read, but none were the “same” as one of the main characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem is that a lot of white writers (no offense when I say this) just assume that any representation of minorities is good. That those people will be happy. But that is such a backwards, ignorant idea. Would you want someone to tell you they represented you in a story only to read that story and find out it was absolutely NOTHING like you? Or that your representation was washed out by the author’s background? That’s how it’s currently working. White writers are offering representation, but BAD representation is actually more harmful than no representation. And I am of the belief that if you can’t take the time to find someone who you are trying to represent in your story to read it, then you shouldn’t be writing it because then you’re not writing it for them. You’re writing it for you. (which we do, but then write what you know and not try to write someone else.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I get it. I have seen a lot of painful representations. I also am not in favor of inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Every character has to be there for a real reason, not “here is the Asian character”, “here is the gay character”, etc. But it is multi faceted. Writing “for” a minority often means using a stereotype, which, of course, is what we are trying to avoid. For instance, I know several African Americans that could not be more different from each other. If I wrote about one and had it fit exactly and then gave it to another, it would be absolutely NOTHING like that second person, any more than that white guy with the Confederate flag in his pickup truck, you know, the one who lives in a trailer park in Georgia (yes, I know, it’s a stupid stereotype, on purpose) is like me. We have to be conscious of reality, know people, and create characters that are as true to life as possible, not try to please some minority or other. That being said, since “white privileged” does exist in the US, we do have to be careful. And sensitive to other’s needs. I am not against “sensitivity readers” at all and will try to use them in the future. The beta readers for my books have been relatively diverse (1 out 4 was a white person in the last one), but that’s just the way ti turned out, it wasn’t planned.


        1. I understand your point, Trent. No two people are the same and it is wrong and inaccurate to state that having an African American character will allow all African American readers to connect to and feel represented by that character. However, there are still very distinct things that differentiate African American peoples and Asian peoples and white peoples, etc.

          The problem is that white people are still writing African American characters like they would a white person and, in our current society, it’s very unlikely for an African American person to view every situation the same as a white person because of their background, their home life, their community, and so forth. I understand what you’re trying to get at, but I’m sorry to say that the way you phrased your argument to prove that one character isn’t representative of an entire population, is not the best way to go about it. As it comes across now, it almost sounds like we shouldn’t even try to offer representation because we’ll never actually be able to accurately represent the complexities of people. As your argument currently stands, your privilege is showing.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I will admit that I am a product of privilege – white, straight, male, you name it. Yep. I can try to argue “street cred”, but every example I bring up can be shown to actually prove privilege even more. here is my point – an author needs to write characters, not types. Characters need to be based on people us authors know, at least to some extent, or they are false. And the people I know aren’t cliches. Sure, I can take someone and bring out the cliche, like a gay friend who dresses impeccably, has better taste in just about anything you can image than I do, loves Broadway musicals, is very creative, etc. These are all cliches. But he is not. This guy also happens to be African American and fits few of the cliches there. But he is discriminated against, so there is that cliche – clerks following him around in stores, being asked for three forms of picture ID to use a credit card, being pulled over for “driving while black”, etc. If I was basing a character on him, would I need to include that? maybe, depending on the story.

            OK, I didn’t read through all of the comments I left, but I think I kind of remember, so I know I’ll be repeating. Anyway, “diversity” is needed in fiction today, but it has to be realistic. My next book is set in a small new Hampshire town. If you’ve been to a small NH town, you’ll know it is the least diverse place in the country. So if I have huge diversity, it rings false. That doesn’t mean I need to have everyone cookie cutter white-bread. of course not. It just has to make sense. All of the characters in this town are based on people i know. If the main character goes into the city to work and his boss is from India, then I need to make sure it is based on people I know from India, not stupid cliches. I can watch movie/TV clips to help get some nuances, but with the knowledge that I might be seeing a cliche. If I have a question, I ask a friend to make sure I didn’t make a blunder.

            Now as to POV, I’ve written short stories from a lot of POVs. I’ve had people comment positively on characters that are of their ethnicity/sexual orientation/religion/etc. That said, I would never try to write a novel on a POV other than a white straight person’s unless I am working closely with a person of that ethnicity or sexual orientation. For instance, I’ve seen my friend above being profiled, but I don’t know first hand what it is like to live it all of the time. Other things that are even more subtle. And i totally understand that if I have an African American friend and socialize with them, I am not necessarily seeing their culture. We all have different faces for different people. That is something that I could not get right unless I was working directly with a person.

            Anyway, I dodn’t want to write an entire post here πŸ˜‰ so I’ll stop for now. I am for an author having their work read and critiqued by a person like the people depicted in the work, but I think the author needs to do his/her homework first. That starts with knowing a wide variety of people, but not because they are an author, but as a human. They also need to be observant, and to have some idea of what they are observing.


  2. Hey there! πŸ™‚

    Don’t worry I have no complaints this time. I thought that I would because at first it seemed like you would only talk about race and sexuality but you didn’t. PROUD OF YOU!

    I do just have one suggestion, next time you are looking for sensitivity readers regarding sexuality, you may want to include people who are pansexual as they may be able to add an additional layer of perspective.

    Now to answer your question, yes authors should use sensitivity readers. It is absolutely possible for authors to write experiences that are not their own. Many fail because they don’t care enough to try. They think that diversity is a check list and that the representation is okay when they use stereotypes and harmful tropes. It’s not. And it’s preventable. Like you said (and do) talk to people, ask questions. Sensitivity readers are (at this point) taking that extra step further to do it right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will admit that my understanding of the various sexualities that exist in modern culture are still beyond my grasp. I try to understand them. I often have conversations with people more knowledgeable than myself about these unfamiliar sexualities, but at this time I am still unable to understand. But I do believe I had a volunteer who identifies as pansexual to read my 2nd draft. πŸ™‚

      I am happy to hear you believe authors can write about people other than themselves because I find myself to be really boring. Hahahaha! If I were to only write about characters that are like me, then the book you are reading would not exist. The characters and their interactions would not exist and my stories would be like everything else on the market. But I don’t want to write what’s already been published.

      I have ideas. I want to expand them. I have to say that I had a feeling my society would be considered scandalous by publishers because we don’t really see this society in YA, but I WANT it to be there. I was excited to write something ‘scandalous,’ but also to write something that does exist and is completely normal for some people. And the society is vital to the story. Just because we don’t see it in our daily lives doesn’t mean those people don’t exist. (as I speak excessively abstract because I don’t know where you are in the story).

      Now… here’s hoping I did it all well. EEP!

      Liked by 1 person

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