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 Sensitivity Readers review spec screenplays and unpublished manuscripts specifically for …
- 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!
Amazing food for thought from Alex. If you want to read more about sensitivity reading, check out these articles …
- What Are Sensitivity Readers?
- Sensitivity Readers: What You Need To Know, And Why It Matters
- Sensitivity Readers: What The Job Is Really Like
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.