Why Should Writers Work With A Sensitivity Reader?

About Alex Creswick

 Alex Creswick is a sensitivity reader and producer who specialises in diverse storytelling and project development. Previously the VP at Paradox Studios, she oversaw the company’s slate of TV and Film projects. Alex has produced numerous short films and is currently in post-production on her first indie feature The Blackout. This is written and directed by Daniela De Carlo and starring an incredible, diverse cast of up-and-coming talent.

In other words, Alex really knows what she’s talking about!  I thought I’d have a chat with her about sensitivity reading and how this can help us write our own characters and stories. (Before we begin, please be aware we talk about ableism and suicide).

What Is A Sensitivity Reader?

There’s lots of confusion about what sensitivity readers are and what they are for. With this in mind, we should consider what a sensitivity reader is. Sensitivity Readers review spec screenplays and unpublished manuscripts specifically for …

  • Stereotypes
  • Representational issues
  • Problematic language
  • Unconscious bias

They then may work with the writer or filmmaker to eliminate any issues in the story as a result of the above. Just as regular script readers may check for accuracy, sensitivity readers are checking for authenticity aka ‘emotional truth’.

‘Sensitivity readers disrupt the unconscious power system we all live in,’ Alex says. ‘My first question is always, ‘What is your intent – what do you want to do/say?’’

What A Sensitivity Reader is NOT  

Sensitivity readers are not killjoys who are ‘overthinking’ everything (though sometimes writers and the press portray them as such). What’s more, sensitivity readers LIKE writers to explore challenging themes and ideas in their work. There’s nothing a reader likes more than well-executed commentary, whether it’s about gender, class, LGBT issues, race, disability or something else.

So how do writers end up executing such social commentary well? By employing a sensitivity reader and discussing it with them!

 ‘I’m not just flagging problematic stuff,’ Alex explains. ‘There’s a difference between knowing something is a problem and commenting on it … If the commentary isn’t precise, you can end up replicating bias by accident.’

Discussing the many issues that surround particular characters, stories, tropes etc enables writers to explore such commentary. This in turn enables them to represent it in an intentional and impactful way.

‘Any commentary in the story should be intentional. Your intent should match your impact.’

An Example of Sensitivity Reading

So, working with a sensitivity reader can help a writer think about ‘what’s gone before’. This can help ensure a writer doesn’t accidentally end up recycling stale, samey or even offensive character tropes or types of story. Let’s think of disability as an example.

‘Disability is often one of the most forgotten communities and deserves far more representation and recognition,’ Alex says.

I totally agree. When I was researching and writing my Diverse Characters book, I noticed this too. The lack of variety on this really shocked me … But not as much as the LACK of discussion about it. This is one of the reasons I ended up covering it in the book.

‘Too often, there’s focus on the ‘suicidal wheelchair user’ character in the ‘Better Off Dead’ story.’ Alex explains, ‘This is an incredibly ableist perspective that centres able-bodied people. It also ignores the realities of people born disabled, because usually the character became disabled due to an accident or similar.

‘These tropes frame disability solely in terms of trauma and loss, and ignores the reality that it’s not disability that inherently makes life difficult, but rather a world that is actively hostile and unaccommodating.’

Simply talking and thinking about how the ‘Better off Dead’ story is OVERrepresented can help writers understand their story needs something ‘better’ at its heart.

With a sensitivity reader’s help, the writer can explore WHY this character came into their head first … Have they been unconsciously influenced by all the existing stories? What does this mean? Can they think of something more unusual or authentic? What can they add to the discourse about disability with this story? MORE: 10 Quick Tips To Write Better Disabled Characters

Why Are Sensitivity Readers Controversial?

Sadly, not all writers believe sensitivity readers are necessary or even useful. Some writers react very badly, saying it’s ‘sterilising’ storytelling, or complain about ‘thought police’ or ‘censorship’. They may even accuse anyone who dislikes a particular character trope or type of story of being a ‘snowflake’ who ‘WANTS to be offended’.

Others will not feel quite so strongly but may say writing is supposed to be about entertainment. There is, they will argue, no substitute for proper education and outreach work. They may also say writers’ primary responsibility is to the story, not how someone might interpret it.

These writers have got it all wrong about sensitivity readers though, Alex says.

‘I’m not Gandalf to the Balrog, saying ‘You shall not pass!’ … I’m not saying you CAN’T do something. My job is to ask intent, to work with writers.’

Intriguingly, most writers will have editors and beta readers to check for accuracy. So, are some writers SO resistant to the idea of sensitivity reading?

‘It’s not enough to be PRO diversity, you have to BE,’ says Alex, ‘often this means giving up some of your power.’  Quite!

Further Reading

Amazing food for thought from Alex. If you want to read more about sensitivity reading, check out these articles …

You can also read about the issue of cultural appropriation and what this means for writers, here >> 13 Questions On Cultural Appropriation You Need To Ask Right Now.

By the Way …

Don’t forget either you can hire Alex as a sensitivity reader for your project, too. Check out her website and services HERE and follow her on Twitter and Instagram as @Aleekza.

Good luck!

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12 thoughts on “Why Should Writers Work With A Sensitivity Reader?”

  1. But …the greatest films ever made in the history of movie-making, never had any of this.

    There is only one bar to ever measure up to, and that is the bar set to the highest level. If we pander to whatever-the-current-trend-is, we ‘generate a product’ which is bound to be pointless, conformist, cookie-cutter, and forgotten.

    Get rid of all the gate-keepers. This is getting farcical.

    1. Well you clearly didn’t didn’t read the article properly. You also miss the point that thematics are incredibly important and by just skimming over them and ignoring how they work, THAT’S when stories become ‘pointless, conformist, cookie-cutter, and forgotten.’

      1. As a writer with mobility and pain issues, I agree with Alex and Lucy. Disabled people are basically invisible unless a writer (generally an ableist of some sort) wants to make a point about the character’s disability. I find it disheartening …witness recent court rulings that mobility impaired folks can’t be guaranteed access to voting places. We’re invisible unless we’re inconvenient, then we’re kicked to the curb.

        With regard to Cosimo’s ‘get rid of all gatekeepers’ attitude, those folks wouldn’t be necessary if everyone did their research instead of flogging their favorite trope. Look at “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind,” and many others. Race isn’t the only issue, as I noted, but cultural appropriation by ‘white’ writers is still a major problem. Maybe Cosmo should have to go through a wheelchair obstacle course or live in a amicably different culture from his own. I hope it would open his eyes.

        1. Great points well made, AK. Too often writers who freak out about stuff like sensitivity reading are forgetting other POVs and experiences exist, which is why sensitivity reading is so badly needed.

  2. Hi an interesting article and though I agree we need greater diversity, I think this is better achieved by more diverse creators, not through monitoring by a third party. There should not be a moral imperative imposed on writers as it is slippery slope, and while you say sensitivity training is not there to censor or tell off writers, this is exactly what happens, as the response to Cosimo indicates. We can all read subtext. Hardly anyone disagrees with diversity; the argument, which is valid one, is how we get there.

    1. On the contrary, my reply to Cosimo indicates nothing other than the fact he wasted my time. If he wants to have a conversation about sensitivity reading, the least he can do is actually read and process the article by raising points based on evidence, rather than emotion. Nice try though!

      Since you do attempt to raise some points however, I will address them.

      In 2020, nearly all writers accept feedback is necessary and that sending out a first draft is a very bad idea. That’s literally all this is but referring to stuff like concept and tropes (which is actually part of script editing anyway), yet writers insist there is some kind of ‘conspiracy’ out to get them.

      It’s also not a question of ‘either/or’; we can have more diverse creators AND sensitivity reading. The notion that a diverse creator can automatically avoid *all* stereotypes, representational issues or unconscious bias for marginalised communities is a great theory, but it rarely works out that way, which is why ALL writers need feedback.

      If writers truly are up for diversity as you claim, how are they meant to do all this well without the help of a sensitivity reader?

      As mentioned in the article, if people want notes for accuracy, this is not considered a big deal. It only becomes a big deal when people are checking for emotional truth by examining various tropes and concepts and what has gone before … Something B2W advocates and Bang2writers don’t find controversial when it’s not called ‘sensitivity reading’. I have been a script reader and editor for nearly 20 years, this type of checking has always happened. The notion this is a new thing is bizarre; it’s just a new name.

      So, sensitivity reading is not ‘monitoring by a third party’, it’s another tool of DEVELOPMENT. Writers point to various outrages online and say writers are being ‘cancelled’ which is rarely even close to being true … What they mean is, there’s anger when writers use offensive tropes, yet those books, movies and TV shows are still sold (and some even do better because of said outrage, which is sometimes stoked by the PR company).

      Lastly, would you complain about working with a script editor? If you wouldn’t, then the real issue is writers need to reframe how they see sensitivity reading working.

  3. Everyone is making fair points here. My primary concern with sensitivity reading is the presumption that the reader has a complete handle on how everyone in a marginalized group will feel. Yes, certainly someone in a marginalized group will feel that cultural appropriation is taking place in a story and yet someone else in that same marginalized group will say it is not. Who is right?
    Stereotypes, representational issues, problematic language, unconscious bias. These terms were not invented to sensor or gaslight writers or anyone. They came about as a method of communicating what was going on and felt by the marginalized. Valid points are being made but to insinuate that these points are universal to all marginalized people is to dictate their agency for them, in my opinion.
    Further, while I think the conversation needs to be had, no one has all the data nor does anyone have a monopoly on the correct way of caring for someone. We have not hit the peak of human psychological understanding to know how to accurately and correctly care for each other. We are still evolving, let’s not pretend or assume we’re on the righteous right side of history when in five hundred years our progeny will predictably look back and wonder what the heck we were all thinking.
    I love you all and good luck to you.

    1. GREAT point Luke and I’m so glad you raised it. It’s definitely true no one has THE answer, B2W has always said there’s no such thing. In my Diverse Characters book I also cover the notion that one marginalised person simply cannot stand for an entire community.

      One thing we can be sure of when it comes to sensitivity reading is that authenticity has been so far down the list of priorities for so long there are huge epic gaps in representation. We need to educate ourselves about what people from various communities are talking about and compare and contrast views from multiple people. This might sound difficult but is actually a LOT easier than it sounds.

      For example, Alex is not the first person I’ve talked to about disability and storytelling; she’s just the first sensitivity reader I’ve talked to about it. There’s the difference. If we want to write a disabled character, we need to first build a picture of the issue by talking to as many people as possible and reading about disability and storytelling wherever possible, so when we get notes from a sensitivity reader we can then compare and contrast.

      One way of doing this is free and online. Long before I knew sensitivity reading was even a thing, I started using social media to find people ‘like’ my characters. I discovered whole niches online of people and communities all discussing the issues of various media representations and I didn’t even have to ask any Qs … I simply read the threads, noted down their grievances or where they thought stuff was missing etc. I did it over and over and over and before I knew it, I had a started point because I saw that multiple, unconnected people had various issues.

      From there I was able to compare and contrast with sites like http://www.tvtropes.org and I was also meeting amenable people online who wanted to chat about this via sites like http://www.quora.com. It is not just because of B2W either -I have gone ‘undercover’, especially where it’s not safe, like when I spent a summer on reddit pretending to a man and talking to incels which gave me some AMAZING insights for an antagonist. Anyone can do this. Start as an observer and then build your way into these communities. It’s actually fun and so enlightening and inspiring and helps you put yourself in your characters’ shoes.

      It used to be that ACCURACY was the measure of ‘good writing’ … now it’s AUTHENTICITY. Accuracy was much easier to measure, but the issue was the same – what *is* accurate? What *is* authentic? These wrangles are not new. Basically, we need to remember this is all part of writing CRAFT. It is not magic. You dig deep, you will be rewarded. You do slapdash characterisation and call it writer’s intuition? It will blow up in your face.

      The greatest irony is, writers resist doing the work **because** they are afraid the likes of Twitter will yell at them … yet if you don’t do this work, that’s when they yell.

      Sometimes if a work is very popular people yell regardless – but if you have done the work, you know the possible interpretations and whether the yelling is justified or not. That’s peace of mind. Win-win.

      Also, thanks for your good wishes. Love you too and good luck to you!

  4. I would love to work with a sensitivity reader at a studio or publishing house. The challenge is getting to that level. I am a white guy and a reasonably good author who has sold three non-fiction books to regular, royalty-paying publishers. In my almost-finished thriller novel set in the Cold War/civil rights era I had a major supporting character who was black. To ensure authenticity, I worked with one of the smartest people I know, a black guy who grew up dirt poor on the bad side of Gary, Indiana.

    When everything in the novel looked solid, I had a casual conversation with an agent. She said the appearance of cultural appropriation could be a show-stopper; she did not think an agent could sell the manuscript no matter how well the character was written. Publishers are worried that if they buy a work from a new white author with substantial minority characters, they will have protestors in front of corporate headquarters insisting that they hire minority writers to treat the same subject matter. Established authors like John Grisham are grandfathered in. Everything I have read since tells me that she was right.

    I saw no alternative but to cut the subplot that character was in. Which leaves me with an unrealistic cast of characters. Fiction out to reflect life in all its diversity, but, given the current climate, I don’t know how to get there from here.

    I realize that protestors in front of corporate headquarters is mostly an American problem.

    Lucy, thanks for starting this discussion.

    1. Hi Ray, another great point. Knee-jerk protests ARE an issue, as is the notion writers automatically have bad intentions. I think (white, often male) writers were elevated for so long, it’s inevitable the pendulum will swing the other way in the darkest depths of sites like Goodreads or Twitter (which are a vocal minority, not the standard anyway). That said, I have never seen any real issues with *characters*, but whole plots – for example, white writers writing slavery stories (which B2W does not recommend btw) – so I am surprised this agent felt your black character was an issue if he only existed in a subplot. Certainly I have never had a single issue with anyone in the industry by writing black or East Asian characters myself and I’ve been doing it a good while now.

  5. There’s no mention of the cost here, this push for requiring SRs is pushing poor folks out of yet another art form. Some writers can barely afford $10 a month, let alone $800 for ONE SR when their story might have multiple.

    SRs are not necessary for good, authentic rep if the author is serious about authenticity. The idea SRs are could push people away from research and listening because it’s seen as inferior when almost everything SRs say can be found on forums and quora and YouTube and blogs.

    With all this chat of why you SHOULD work with one, where’s consideration for people who CAN’T.

    1. You mean like in my previous comment to Luke, which says you CAN get educated on all this for free online?

      The idea that sensitivity readers could push people AWAY from research is a bit of a stretch, especially considering the existence of paid-for script readers has not killed off peer review and beta reading. Cost however is an issue, it’s true … and the same concerns were raised re: poor folks and *not* sending out first drafts twenty odd years ago. It was said that advocating the use of paid-for script consultants and developmental editors was ‘stopping’ poor writers from gaining a foothold in the industry.

      Except it didn’t stop them. Script reading and feedback-giving was normalised and those who couldn’t afford to do so found **other ways of doing the same thing**. Poor writers banded together and swapped drafts between them for peer review, plus they took to the internet and soaked up all the freebies and advice available. They also set up their own blogs and podcasts and networking events etc.

      In fact, in real terms, as barriers came down things actually got better for poor writers and gave them MORE access, not less. I know, because I was one of them – B2W grew out of all that, back when I was a teen single mother with so little money I had to decide between having the lights or the TV on because of the damn blue meter eating what little I had.

      Sensitivity reading needs to be normalised as just another development tool, because that’s exactly what it is. Like general feedback-giving as it leads to better drafts … but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of poor writers either because of the internet. It does however take longer, plus there’s more room for error when you don’t know what you don’t know.

      Whatever the case though, it’s not ‘either/or’ on sensitivity reading, as with most things it’s better to compare and contrast multiple sources and there’s ALWAYS more than one way to do this.

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