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Sensitivity reading: what you need to know, and why it matters

Sensitivity reading, and other practices such as using inclusive language, are becoming ever more important in publishing. If you’ve not heard of sensitivity reading (sometimes called diversity reading), here’s a quick crash course.

A sensitivity reader is someone who is hired to read and assess a manuscript with a particular issue of representation in mind, one that they have personal experience of. The author usually isn’t from that marginalized group, or doesn’t have direct experience of the topic they’re writing about, and so a sensitivity reader is hired to assess the book.

How can sensitivity readers help?

Sensitivity readers are worth the investment because they can help eliminate stereotypes, bias, potentially harmful content, and false information or inaccuracy. Sensitivity reading isn’t about censorship or taking away freedom of expression (despite what some articles would have you believe). The reader’s role is to improve the book by guiding it towards better representation, educating the author/publisher along the way. Diversity in books is incredibly important, but it’s equally important that diverse books portray whatever they’re writing about accurately and without perpetuating stereotypes.

Aside from improving a book, sensitivity readers are vital in opening up a conversation between marginalized groups and those outside of that sphere.

That isn’t to say that authors from marginalized groups, or those writing with their own circumstances in mind, don’t need sensitivity readers. No two people will have the same experiences, so an author writing with themselves in mind might still look for additional readers to consider a range of viewpoints.

What areas does sensitivity reading cover?

A sensitivity reader might specialise in one niche, or multiple, depending on their experiences and identity. The topics sensitivity reading can cover are broad. They can include ethnicity and racial group, but also sexuality, physical and mental health, disability, class … the list is exhaustive.

The reads can also be geared to genre as well (for example, I read for women/feminist issues in fantasy, a genre that’s often dominated by male writers and patriarchal worlds).

What’s the process?

A reader will go through a manuscript with a critical eye and provide editorial feedback on the subject they’re reading for. This is usually in the form of a letter or report, and it’ll vary in length and complexity depending on the reader, the budget, and the requirements.

Although readers don’t directly edit a book, they do perform tasks similar to copy editing and fact checking, especially if they spot any words or terms that are inaccurate or harmful, and highlight these as part of the read.

How to make sensitivity reading work for you

A sensitivity reader doesn’t make demands, or changes to a manuscript – they offer advice and guidance, but it’s ultimately publishers and authors who make the final decisions. Consider what your reader says carefully. They can’t be held accountable if you fail to listen. Sensitivity readers can be a great asset if they’re used in the right way, with the right goals in mind: to assess a book with the intention of improving it, and to listen to the voices of those outside of your own experience to make sure you’re doing them justice.

Rachel Rowlands (www.racheljrowlands.com) is an editor, author, and professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. She has a degree in English and Creative Writing and works on genre fiction and commercial non-fiction books. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @racheljrowlands.

Rachel Rowlands, sensitivity readers, sensitivity reading, Society for Editors and Proofreaders

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