Sensitivity Reading: Do You Need It?
In 2020, writing in a PC way is getting more and more important. People are taking more notice of your language. Those of us who feel hurt by offensive stuff now have the voice to come forward and explain why things need to change. People are finding that it is good for their business to make sure that their language is open and tolerant to all. That’s where sensitivity reading comes in.
In light of the Rowling scandal, Pride and Black Lives Matter, now is such an important time to think about how we can be more inclusive. Of course, we have laws and protests and schemes that people put together. How much do we really think about the language we use, though?
So loads of businesses and writers work with the threat of a PR disaster on the horizon. They feel as though they have tread very lightly. They don’t want to hurt any minorities and feel the wrath of Twitter on their backs! Plus, deep down, some of us know that we’d dig our heels in the sand if we got cancelled. Talk about making things worse!
That’s where sensitivity reading comes in. It seems to be the solution to the whole cancelling problem. Just get someone to help you! Someone who’s going to be kind to you, but knows what red flags to look for in your work.
Naturally, you’ll have questions. What is this sensitivity reading thing anyway? How does it help? What does it do? Could it be the way to save you from a PR nightmare?
Well, keep reading to find out more.
Why Are People So Offended Now?
When sensitivity reading comes up in a conversation, there are some things that people always ask me. Why are people so darn offended these days? The Twitter mobs are cancelling people indiscriminately. So many of those poor people don’t mean to hurt anyone. They just didn’t realise what they were doing. It feels like this came out of nowhere.
I can get why you would think so! In reality, though, it’s not quite as simple as that. People have always been offended. This isn’t a new thing! The fact that you can hear them isn’t just because they chose now of all times to speak out. It’s because they now have the voice to express themselves and the platforms and influence to make us listen.
Back in the day, you could go about your daily life without hearing their voices. If the editor of the newspaper you read chose not to cover a protest, you wouldn’t hear about it. The protests would probably stay quite small, too, because there was no way to drum up mass support.
Now, though, things are different. There isn’t one person choosing whose voice gets to be heard and whose doesn’t. It’s all done by computers! People can connect all over the world. The more they connect and share each other’s work, the more the computer shows it to you. That’s the beauty of algorithms.
The more they share each other’s work, the bigger it gets. The bigger it gets, the more these movements have the power to change our world. They were always there. We just didn’t listen to them.
I think that this shows that the world is getting more equal. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you have the time, tech-savviness and message, you can use the internet to be heard.
How That Works
Let’s take people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as an example. When Alfred Hitchcock’s Psyhco came out all those years ago, it hurt the DID community. It made people think that those with the disorder were dangerous murderers!
But there was little that they could do about it. Maybe they could influence their immediate circles, but that was it.
This was true for quite a few reasons. One, people with DID make up such a small minority of the world population that it was hard for them to get together and protest.
The way that people treated mental health back then was awful! They were more likely to be ignored and silenced, put in awful institutions and abused. They didn’t have very much power or bodily autonomy.
Plus, what would they do? If a newspaper didn’t want to run their story about how they’re not violent, that was it. They weren’t going to be heard.
By the time that Split came out in 2016, though, the world was a different place. We had the internet and smartphones and people could be connected to one another all around the world.
They could use YouTube to show us that their lives weren’t so different from ours. They could get together online and share experiences and protest. Blogs and articles were easy to make and even easier to read! It was so much easier to put a human face to Dissociative Identity Disorder.
That doesn’t mean people with DID weren’t upset with how they were portrayed before during the Psycho era. It just means that now, the rest of us could listen for the first time. And lord did we need to hear it.
How Does Good Representation Help Writers and Businesses?
I spend a whole lot of my time talking about how bad representation and poor use of language can hurt minorities. When it comes down to it, though, I can’t make people care. I can’t make them compassionate or empathetic. I can only tell them why they should care. If you’ve never experienced a lack of any good representation, it can be hard for even a good person to empathise.
So instead, I want to focus on how bad representation and insensitivity in writing can be bad for business.
The world is waking up to just how diverse it is. Minorities are breaking out of the oppression that they have endured for a long time. The world is changing.
With all of that considered, it is a good idea to be aware of the needs and interests of groups of people who don’t fit the “default” straight, white, cis, able-bodied male. When you choose to widen your demographic, it makes sense that you will get more business and be appreciated by more people! Not just the minorities themselves, but also allies!
If you are a writer, expanding the diversity of your story can make more people relate to and invest in your characters. If you do this sensitively, you’ll be in the best position to avoid any backlash and hate online.
For the businesses out there, writing with minorities in mind can improve your relations with other businesses, make people feel more comfortable about using your products and services and put you ahead of your competition.
When it comes down to it, “minority” is a misleading word. In fact, there are more people in the world are a minority in some way or another than those who are not. So, you’re limiting yourself massively if you ignore them.
What Is Sensitivity Reading?
So, what is this whole sensitivity reading thing, then?
Well, sensitivity readers are people who go through your work to check if the language and messages in your work are inclusive.
Sensitivity readers do not check your work for spelling and grammar and they do not do a general edit of your writing, unless they specifically say so.
Instead, they focus on the way minorities are portrayed. They look for stereotypes and slurs. They give you suggestions on how you can improve the language to make it friendlier to minorities, such as giving you alternatives to gendered and ableist language.
If you don’t want to offend or add to the negative stereotypes of certain minority groups, sensitivity readers are a good bet for you. They can take a great deal of guess-work out of publishing something for the world to see. It is their job to know about stereotypes, slurs and PC language so that you can focus on what you’re good at!
A good sensitivity reader doesn’t force you to change your work or change it for you. They give you detained suggestions on how you can improve your writing and what makes your work questionable in the first place. Then it’s up to you to listen to them.
There are two different kinds of sensitivity reader: the specialist reader and the general reader.
The Specialist Reader
For the specialist reader, it’s all in the name! Specialist readers specialise in one or two kinds of representation. They usually belong to those communities, so you might find a rare person who have three or more that they’re comfortable reading for.
Specialist readers are great for people who are producing narrative media in some form: films, novels, TV shows, plays, games, etc.
They can go through with a particular minority group or two in mind, so they can give you a very detailed look into tropes and stereotypes, providing changes that you can make to your characters to ensure that they aren’t offensive.
It can be as simple as changing a word or two or developing a character more or as difficult as a redraft of part of your work.
They will know a great deal about how their communities are represented poorly and why this representation is considered bad. This makes them a great asset to your editing process.
As specialists have very specific niches, you may need to ask more than one sensitivity reader for help if you have multiple different minority characters in your work. If you have a Chinese character, get a sensitivity reader who specialises in Chinese issues. If you are writing about a black trans girl, try to find a reader who knows about black trans women’s struggles.
This can get a little expensive, so it is usually the most worth it your work is going to be published either professionally or to many people.
If you can afford multiple specialists’ services, more is always better. However, tight budgets can make things harder.
The General Reader
On the other hand, general readers don’t go as deep into the narrative side of things as specialists do.
Instead, they are aware of the most obvious tropes and stereotypes, as well as gendered, sexist, racist and ableist language. While specialist readers focus in on slurs and exclusionary language that hurts particular groups, general readers have a keen eye for the worst of things from all over the diversity spectrum.
This means that you can’t expect them to be aware of the most obscure of bad tropes. If a general reader feels as though there’s something in your writing that they aren’t sure about, they can point out where you might need a sensitivity reader in a particular section.
It sounds like you might as well get a specialist, right? After all, if they’re going to tell you to go to a specialist anyway, why pay the middle man? Well, while specialists are helpful, going through a general reader could save you money in the long run. Readers usually charge per word. So, having them point out specific sections that specific specialists need to have a look at can prevent you from having to send the whole work out to multiple specialists. Plus, they may know someone who can help!
As a general reader myself, I make sure that I am keenly aware of the diversity and inclusion laws and guidelines of the UK, EU and USA. I read up regularly on diversity, make sure I know at least the top 10 worst tropes of as many minority groups as I can and speak to specialists and experts often.
General readers are great for businesses who want someone to go through their blog posts, copy or other marketing text quickly to prevent a PR nightmare.
Will My Work Lose Its Uniqueness?
Some people are worried that a sensitivity reader might want to change everything about their work. Others have had bad experiences with sensitivity reading. Then there are even more people who hold quite a bit of disdain towards what they see as “PC culture”.
If you’re worried about your work losing the thing that makes it special, that is a completely valid concern! After all, there are so many people on the internet who’ll scream things like “delete your tweet” or “this person needs to be deplatformed” as soon as they get angry or upset.
To be honest with you, I think there are quite a few sensitivity readers out there who would try their best to change your work, and that can be a great concern!
A good sensitivity reader, though, will leave your work intact. They won’t censor you in any way. They will add to your writing: suggest ways do develop certain characters or appeal to new markets. At most, they will suggest that you alter what you have if it is super offensive. Personally, it’s rare for me to suggest that anyone redraft more than a paragraph or two.
I think that anyone should be able to write about anything being shut down. No topic should be off the table. No kind of character should be forbidden. However, if you are someone who likes to write about more controversial topics, you may need someone to help you navigate your way through without causing too much offence.
In my time as a sensitivity reader for fiction, I have found that most people just need someone to tell them which characters need a little more development here and there to break them from their rigid stereotypes. I add to your work. I don’t take away!
Do Sensitivity Readers Mean No Controversy?
No sensitivity reader can guarantee that you will not anger anyone once you’ve listened to them.
Some people work themselves up over small things. Others get triggered by things that we see as normal or mundane through no fault of their own. Mental health problems can be debilitating!
As well as that, we are only human. We cannot promise that we are aware of the most obscure of negative tropes or words. This is especially true for us general readers who focus on the bigger picture! Plus, sensitivity readers aren’t spokespersons for their whole community. That’s why it’s always good to get as many different voices as possible!
What we can do, though, is limit the damage. People will see that you’ve tried and they might be more open to forgiving you if you did something wrong. More importantly, controversy can build up. If you hurt one community by accident, it’s not anywhere near as bad as hurting minorities a hundred times through carelessness!
I can’t promise that you’ll be free, but I can help!
Where You Can Find a Sensitivity Reader?
Sensitivity readers can be quite hard to come by and even harder to assess for quality. There are loads of us online, but some have huge waiting lists. Others charge way too much. And how do you even know if a sensitivity reader will be good?
Well, most of us have blogs or books that you can look at. If we give good advice for free or cheap, you might be more convinced that our paid services will be to a good standard. So don’t be afraid to read through blog posts to find which readers make the most sense to you.
Sometimes it’s about a personality thing, too! You might find that you prefer one reader over another just based on how they talk to you or the tone they use in their work. Some of us are more patient than others!
Before you ask: yes. You do have to pay for sensitivity reading services. This can set you back quite a big based on how busy your reader is, how much experience they have and what expenses they have to pay for. It’s up to you to think about whether or not it’s worth it and how much you trust the reader to do a good job.
I recommend that you check out Salt & Sage Books. They’re great and they wrote the amazing How to Write Black Characters: An Incomplete Guide (Incomplete Guides Book 1) that I will do a review on soon! They are a little pricey, though.
If you want to give me your trust, I do have a Fiverr gig that you can check out! The Premium package includes sensitivity reading, along with proofreading and editing services.
Please note: the longer your text, the more time it will take me to read it!
What Can You Do If You Can’t Afford Sensitivity Readers?
Sensitivity readers aren’t a luxury that all of us can afford. And even if we can, it doesn’t mean that we think they’re cost-effective if we aren’t going to be making any money from our writing ourselves! So, that means that many smaller creators and hobbyists lose out on the benefit of having someone read over your work to check out your representation.
What should you do if that’s the case for you? Well, you have two options! You can become a sensitivity reader for yourself with lots of research and reading. Or, you can find some beta readers to help you out!
Beta readers are a bit like a sensitivity reader, proofreader and editor all in one. Of course, they usually don’t have the experience or knowledge of the people you’d pay (or they’d be charging, too), but i you can recruit enough of them to help you, you might be able to fill in the gaps that paid services leave behind!
Try writing communities like my Forums, Wattpad, Tapas or Episode Interactive. If you’re struggling to find people to read the whole thing, why not post a chapter or section at a time?
If you’d like to read on diversity and representation, this is what my blog is here for! I have posts on trans women, Muslim characters and many other minority groups! Plus, I often answer the most pressing diversity questions!
When it comes down to it, though, it’s all your choice. I can’t force tyou to be sensitive in your writing. I can only make suggestions.
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This is really interesting! I love the commentary at the end that addresses how communities can provide a sort of proofreading service for your work if you can’t afford it. Sensitivity readers definitely are important, because there’s really only so much that one author can know. It sounds especially important for large and popular works, because of all the damage they can do. I’m curious, though, how much good sensitivity reading usually costs, because there’s no numbers in the post.
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