What’s a Sensitivity Reader…and Do I Need One?

The fairly new term “sensitivity reader” might make warning bells go off for authors, who need to have artistic freedom and be free from fear of censorship. No fiction writer or memoirist wants to have their portrayal of characters from a different race, class, gender, or culture than their own stamped with a big “WRONG.”

Sensitivity readers, however, don’t function as censors or thought police; their job isn’t to make a writer toe a party line. Simply put, a sensitivity reader is a professional who reviews a manuscript with an eye to its representations of marginalized people. This is especially helpful if the author is writing about an identity or culture they don’t share with their characters.

Here’s an analogy. You write a murder mystery with a police detective as the main character. You do a lot of research, but unless you’ve worked as a detective yourself or have a close relationship with someone on the police force, you’ll probably consult a professional about the details you want to get right. In the “Acknowledgments” pages of novels, authors gush their thanks to police officers, doctors, pharmacists, firearms specialists, and other professionals who caught glaring mistakes and helped make their books more authentic.

A sensitivity read functions much the same way. It gives you a chance to address inaccuracies in your book before you send it out to agents and editors. In this day of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, more and more publishers look for stories about marginalized communities. But say you’re a cisgender author, and your detective is transgender. Or you’re a neurotypical author, and your detective is neurodivergent. Or you’re a Christian who has created a Muslim detective. You might nail the detective part, and you may have done extensive research about the cultural identity of your detective. But getting a sensitivity read could catch assumptions and biases you didn’t even know you had. Although you never intended them to, your mistakes could hurt readers—and ultimately damage your credibility as an author.

Some agencies and individual editors offer sensitivity reading as a paid service. The issues they read for vary—everything from race, religion, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation, to physical and mental ability. A sensitivity reader is not your unsuspecting South Asian neighbor or your autistic co-worker whom you casually ask to read your manuscript without telling them why.

Our job as authors is to create fleshed-out characters who pop off the page—people readers can recognize and relate to on some level. That includes characters who are aren’t like us but reflect the larger world.

(For more on the importance of sensitivity reading to the publishing industry in general, see this article in the Chicago Tribune.)

In Paula’s upcoming workshop at Charlotte Lit, “Beyond Stereotypes: Creating Diverse Characters with Dimension,” you’ll look at steps you can take while you’re planning, drafting, or revising your manuscript to avoid inducing stereotypes into your work inadvertently. In effect, you can learn to be your own first sensitivity reader.