About Sensitivity Readers
Sensitivity readers are never far from the news these days. There’s been countless articles and threads online decrying them, citing ‘cancel culture’ and ‘offended snowflakes’ supposedly ‘ruining’ writing in the 2020s.
A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a literary work, looking for perceived offensive content, accidental stereotypes and bias. They then create a report for a writer, publisher or another industry pro with suggested changes. No more, no less.
FYI, I actually don’t like the term ‘sensitivity reader’. I feel it plays into (some) writers’ belief the job is ‘pandering’ to various communities or cultures. These writers focus on the word ‘sensitivity’ being about the READER or VIEWER, when in reality that word refers to US, the writer (ie. we’re the ones who should be ‘sensitive’, not the other way around!).
I much prefer the term ‘authenticity checker’. It shows the value of the job, because as we all know: industry pros want AUTHENTIC STORIES right now!
But maybe you’re on the fence about needing a sensitivity reader, or perhaps you’re thinking about becoming one yourself? No doubt you will have heard all the myths I list here … I know I have!
I’m going to spotlight each one, with why they’re wrong. Ready? Let’s go …
1) “Sensitivity Readers are a new thing.”
They’re definitely not. I’ve been a script reader for almost twenty years now – two whole DECADES – and I’ve basically been doing sensitivity reading this whole time!
I’ve given advice on what it’s like to be a teen mother, a woman, bisexual, to have mental illness, you name it! The only difference is, it was just called script reading.
What’s new is the NAME.
When I wrote my Diverse Characters book in 2017, I didn’t mention sensitivity reading because the first time that I can trace it mentioned online was 2018. Since then, writers have been fiercely debating the job’s ‘worth’.
Yet most writers see the benefit of checking stuff like jobs (ie. with police officers, teachers, lawyers being the most common). Writers also tend to understand checking languages with native speakers helps, too.
So why not double-check and compare/contrast marginalised people’s lived experience? Think of it as a kind of ‘authenticity checker’ … and authenticity is the watchword for 2020s! MORE: Writers Ask: What Does Authenticity Really Mean, Anyway?
2) “… are unnecessary, just do your research!”
Sure, research *can* work when it comes to writing sensitively. As long as you have …
- a truly open mind
- understanding that EVERYONE has unconscious bias
- have identified your own unconscious biases
- are working against those unconscious biases 24/7
It’s a pretty tall order, no?
Also, it’s worth remembering we don’t know what we don’t know. You can research all you want but if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may end up down some useless rabbit holes. This is where sensitivity readers come in: think of them as your guide!
3) “… will stifle creativity.”
This is simply not true. Sensitivity readers only help identify potential issues or flashpoints with your story, such as toxic tropes, accidental stereotypes or clichéd representations.
AGAIN: they won’t tell you what you can and can’t write. Ultimately, it’s up to the writer to decide what to do with the information such readers give them.
4) “… sanitise writing.”
I always find this one particularly amusing as it doesn’t even vaguely stand up to scrutiny. No writer complains that fact-checking (as with #1 on this list) ‘sanitises’ their writing, do they?
In fact, it’s held up as ADDING to their writing and making it more authentic! It’s the same with sensitivity reading.
What’s more, there are limits to our imagination. I’ve shared before on this blog that a sensitivity reader helped me make a gay erotica short story I wrote EVEN MORE SEXY.
Even as a queer writer myself, I could never have come up with his suggestion by myself … I don’t have a penis!
5) “… are just wokist nonsense!”
Some writers believe sensitivity readers are a form of censorship. This is often because the writer in question believes in so-called ‘wokism’ getting in the way of what they want to write.
But the thing is, writers are still free to write whatever they want. Literally no one can ‘stop’ us! (Getting it published or produced is a different thing). MORE: Movies Have always Been ‘Woke’. You Just Didn’t Notice
6) “… are too expensive.”
Sometimes writers complain that adding sensitivity reading to the mix adds to the expense of being an author or screenwriter.
They may complain it’s not fair so much development falls to the writer. They’re not wrong, but that’s a much bigger issue than *just* sensitivity reading on its own.
Feedback costs money, because people’s expertise is worth something. What’s more, industry pros expect manuscripts and spec screenplays to be ‘good’ (whatever that means).
As writers, we need to speculate to accumulate and not hiring experts to give us feedback is false economy.
7) “… can’t possibly know EVERYTHING about an issue, community or culture.”
It’s absolutely true that no group of people is a monolith. It’s also true that even if you do your research and hire sensitivity readers, SOMEONE out there will still have a problem with your character or story.
There’s simply no way of ensuring your script or manuscript is for ‘everybody’. That just doesn’t exist.
But sensitivity readers are not pretending to stand FOR ‘everybody’. That’s not their purpose. Instead, it’s their FAMILIARITY with their own culture, community or issue that helps us as writers.
For example, lots of male writers ask B2W for feedback on their female characters. Obviously, I can’t include every woman alive’s POV in my feedback. That would be absurd.
Instead, I give this feedback not based on just my own experiences as a woman, but what I’ve seen and heard *as* a woman (that men may be locked out of).
These may include things I don’t think myself, or even disagree with, but I still include them in my feedback.
I may also compare/contrast my experiences and draw attention to how or why they may be different to other women’s.
As a middle-aged white woman, I will have had very different experiences to say, a young BIPOC woman born after the year 2000.
Similarly, as someone who was a teen mother, I had a VERY different introduction to adult life than women who did not become mothers until their thirties.
8) “… are unnecessary if you’re already familiar with the culture/group in question.”
While it’s certainly helpful to be familiar with the culture or group you’re writing about, it’s not enough. As I’ve written before on this blog, many writers fall into this pitfall. This is usually because a writer uses a real-life ‘diverse’ person they know or are related to, to help inform their character.
Just because you know something about a culture doesn’t mean you understand how that culture would react to your story. A sensitivity reader can help fill in those gaps and ensure that your story is respectful and accurate.
9) “… will slow down the process.”
While it may take a little longer to find and work with a sensitivity reader, the pay-off is worth it. Not only will you avoid potential issues with your story, but you’ll also end up with a better manuscript or screenplay overall. This in turn will make it much more likely your story will sell.
10) “… readers just want to tell writers off.”
NOPE! Look, I’m NOT saying there are not sensitivity readers out there who give shit feedback. Script reading is a skill set like any other and there will be some good ones and some bad ones.
As with all feedback services, its buyer beware. This is why writers need to do their due diligence and ask their peers. Find out who offers good value for money. Go for those, ignore the rest … just as you would for all other script reading services.
Want even MORE script reading secrets?
My sell-out course, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is back this July!
If you’re interested in becoming a script reader, or finding out more how script readers may assess YOUR own writing – or both! – then this is the course for you.
Tickets are on sale now. GET THEM HERE, or click the pic on the left. See you there!