While there is much discussion about sensitivity readers (are they necessary, is it censorship, etc), I see very little discussion of what exactly a sensitivity reader does. When you hire me as a sensitivity reader, what exactly are you getting?
At its most general, you are getting my life experience to improve your book.
Personally, I don’t think that phrasing tells you very much about what the transaction of a hiring a sensitivity reader looks like.
To start with, do you even need a sensitivity reader? If you are asking yourself this question, the answer is probably yes. I understand the hesitation. Sensitivity reader’s cost money. Or should cost money. The industry average is around $250–350 although that can vary depending on the reader and the timeline of the read. Many authors try to get more than one reader. No one person is representative of their whole community and different people may key into different problems. Ideally, a good sensitivity reader will be able to point out their own feelings and the feelings of the general community. But there is always a benefit to an extra set of eyes.
A good sensitivity reader is both a concerned reader and an editor. As with any relationship between writer and editor, it is the duty of the reader to give honest feedback and ask questions. It is up to the writer which concerns need addressing and which ones to pass over. A reader’s job is to highlight areas which may come up as concerning to future readers. But it is the job of the writer to decide what to do about those areas.
When I read, I am looking at a number of things. Are there any aspects that are playing off of stereotypes? This is something I like to flag. While many authors may be doing this consciously and even commenting on these stereotypes, it is part of my job as a sensitivity reader to make sure that the writer knows that this stereotype exists.
For example, Lemony Snicket has a new book coming out entitled The Bad Mood and the Stick.
When I first saw this cover, I thought it looked pretty cute. I did not see what others saw, until someone showed me this:
I did not have the knowledge to pick up on the problematic imagery. That lack is what drives the need for sensitivity readers. No one person can know and catch everything. We are constantly learning, but these are the kinds of issues which need an extra set of eyes to catch. Given enough time, these sorts of issues can be quickly resolved. With this book, they were able to go back in and change the art to this:
Still fun and cute and so much less problematic.
I also want to look at the facts of the story. This isn’t true for every type of sensitivity reader, but as someone who is often asked to read transgender narratives, one of my duties is to point out some factual aspects of the story. I get less questions about this related to things such as mental health, but it can still apply. For example, would it have been legal for this character to change their birth certificate in that state in the 90’s? These laws vary greatly state to state and over time. This is not something that is common knowledge. As a sensitivity reader, I can bring these kinds of factual questions to the writer’s attention. This is probably the least controversial part of my job.
The more controversial part of my job is what has sometimes been labeled “thought policing.” It is the reading for words or phrases that may be or may be considered offensive. Perhaps problematic plot lines. I can only speak to my own methods, but I do not aim to be prescriptive about my feedback. My goal is to give context. I want to point to a problem and explain why. I am not reading to correct every little mistake. I am reading to give advance warning of what reviewers might say later. I am also giving insight into the background of these characters that you might not be aware of. I can explain the why behind common behaviors or sore spots. For example, when I highlight a word choice, I am going to give you at least a paragraph explaining the “why” behind the suggestion. Perhaps it is perfectly within reason that the character would say something offensive, but I want the writer to be aware that they are making that character choice.
A sensitivity reader is not a rubber stamp of approval. Even if I do think everything looks golden, I am going to point to areas in the text where things work and go into why. Perhaps you just happened to write a very insightful scene in ways that you haven’t even realized yet. That is also part of my job. Perhaps there are themes in that scene that you could bring even more to the forefront. I want you to be able to take advantage of my insight in order to write an even more interesting and beautiful story.
Many are concerned that their very idea is too problematic to make it through a sensitivity reading. That a reader might ask them to throw the book out in its entirety. If that truly is the case, that must be something you are willing to risk. I would say that many of the best books are about topics that are difficult to handle. Is there a way to be making commentary on an issue? Sometimes there is. Sometimes you aren’t the right person to be doing that. But my job is to enter an open discussion with you.
At the end of the day, I want your book to be as strong as it can be and reach the largest audience it can. I am very much on your side as you work on your book. This is exactly the help you pay me to do! At the same time, the book is your book. You will make whatever changes you want to make. You are always able to ignore as much of my notes as you want. Use my notes and be able to better articulate why you made the choice you made and are not changing anything.
Your book is in your hands! Make it as great as it can be.