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November 11, 2022
By Tiffany Richardson
Hiring a sensitivity reader can make your book even better.

Being an independent author is a business all its own. When all of the steps toward a polished published work fall completely on the author, important steps can be forgotten or left out of the process on the road to hitting “publish.”

Many self-published authors are familiar with putting out the call to find beta readers or editors, but another often-overlooked step is finding a sensitivity reader. In this more emotionally intelligent moment, authors will want to ensure that their works do not cause offense or harm to their target readers or other people.

“Overall, we’ve seen a cultural shift in awareness and a lower tolerance for misrepresentation, no representation, and incomplete or outdated representation in media,” says Renee Harleston, the founder of Writing Diversely, an editing, writing, and consulting service that specializes in sensitivity reading. “Some authors are more aware of how words and actions affect others and want to prevent readers, especially children, from seeing offensive or harmful representation.”

For most authors, the goal is to increase book sales by getting attention on social media and through word of mouth, but an author’s worst nightmare is going viral because of cultural inaccuracies, stereotypes, bias, or problematic language—which readers are increasingly paying attention to. This is where sensitivity readers come into play. Alongside seeking beta readers or editors, authors should also be looking for sensitivity readers to ensure their books are not offensive or insensitive.

Finding a sensitivity reader and understanding the process can be daunting, but it is necessary and worthwhile to ensure that a published work will not cause harm or be triggering to readers.

Vetting sensitivity readers

An author should bring on a sensitivity reader after the first draft is completed. Authors should not wait until they have received edits, made revisions, and are ready for publishing to send a manuscript to a sensitivity reader, because they might have to make substantial changes to the content of the book.

An appropriate sensitivity reader is a person who belongs to the marginalized demographics featured in the author’s work. “Authors should look for readers who align most closely with the identities of their characters,” Harleston says. Unlike beta readers, many of whom will work for free or in exchange for an advance reader’s copy, sensitivity readers should be compensated because the job can be triggering and emotionally taxing, and because the work of ensuring authors don’t put out harmful content is valuable.

Authors should choose sensitivity readers they trust not to shy away from telling them when something is problematic (which means avoiding friends and family is best). A sensitivity reader should be someone who has experience in the subject matter of the work and, more importantly, someone who understands and is empathetic to the scope of other readers’ feelings.

Although most authors only hire one, it would not hurt to have multiple sensitivity readers and to ask a few of your beta readers to keep an eye out for sensitive issues as well.

What sensitivity readers do

Sensitivity readers are not just a more specialized version of beta readers or editors. They look for problematic issues, stereotypes, microaggressions, bias, and offensive content that does not drive the plot of the book or the characters. “Above all else, sensitivity readers have to be constructive,” Harleston says. “It’s one thing to recognize something should be corrected. It is another thing to be able to provide appropriate feedback, as well as the historical and contemporary context for why an edit should be made, as well as give suggestions on alternatives for the author.”

Notes from the sensitivity reader are generally placed in the margins—much like editors’ notes—so the author can see directly where in the text an issue has been called out. They may suggest removing certain text or suggest ways for the author to reword it.

Working with sensitivity readers

Authors should always work with sensitivity readers under a confidentiality clause, and sensitivity readers should never disclose which aspects they aided authors with. Authors should provide sensitivity readers with a list of questions and issues they’re seeking feedback on, and also be open to feedback on sensitivity topics they did not specifically ask about.

At the end of the day, the author has the final say on what stays and goes in their manuscript. If they feel a note given by the sensitivity reader does not warrant a change, they can always go forward with the original text, although it’s best to take their feedback seriously.

Some authors consider sensitivity readers a form of censorship and feel that the process could water down theirs stories or their authentic voices. Authors who think this way should heed the advice to “write what you know” and not attempt to write characters or story lines outside of their lived experience. Even with extensive research, some things simply cannot be taught.

Though no group of people is a monolith and no one person can speak for a group in its entirety, sensitivity readers certainly have more knowledge than people who have not lived that experience at all. When it comes to being inclusive, sensitivity readers are an important addition to the publishing process.

Tiffany Richardson is the cofounder of Big Black Chapters, a website for indie authors of color to gain knowledge about the self-publishing process.

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