Confessions of a Sensitivity Reader

Every  now and then, someone complains about Sensitivity Readers. The very concept offends some authors. Detractors view it as Political Correctness (or “wokeness”) run amok. I am a Sensitivity Reader. In fact, most of my writing money comes from Sensitivity Reading. (I can’t disclose clients, but I’ve worked for the Big Five). I hope that I can demystify the process.

First, and foremost, the name Sensitivity (or Authenticity) Reader is somewhat misleading. I suppose it conjures up the image of a permanently outraged censor who adheres to a draconian ideology that who transforms passionate works of art into doctrinaire cookie-cutter fiction that tows an identitarian line. 

This could not be further from the truth. It’s more in line with fact-checking and quality control. Nuance and understanding subtext are key factors in the skillset. The point is, authors who want to write diversely sometimes have blind spots. They might find themselves lacking the nuances that their characters have to navigate. My role is point things out—to offer suggestions, to make sure that the author’s portrayal is accurate. My notes are never prescriptive. I am always open to the possibility of misreading things accord to my own biases. When I get the assignments, it is always understood that my reactions to the text are an individual Black queer point of view, and that I don’t speak for all Black queer people. My role is just as a specialized Beta reader.

I’ve never found anything egregious in all the work I’ve done. The biggest issue I’ve come across? One client set his novel in Washington, DC (my hometown and current base of operations) and there wasn’t single Black person in mentioned in the novel. (DC’s demographic are roughly 45% Black, 42% white). Another client had a character that was close to being a ‘magical negro.’ In both cases, the authors were grateful that I had shared my observations, and they incorporated my suggestions into their work. If authors disagree with my assessments, or think I missed a point, that’s valid as well. It’s just getting a specialized version of an Editorial Letter, which tend to be even more brutal.

For those who can’t hire a Sensitivity Reader, you can check out Writing the Other for a comprehensive list of resources.

Obviously, there are works that don’t require the use of Sensitivity Readers. If your work takes place 3000 years in the future with nonhuman characters or in a secondary world without our history, it’s not, in my opinion, necessary. That being said, every work could use an extra set of eyes.

The purpose of Authenticity (or Sensitivity) readers is make a good book even better. That’s the aim, not to appease a mob of “woke Social Justice Warriors.” 

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