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What’s a Sensitivity Read, and Why Is It Important? By Felice Laverne

We invited our friend and colleague, Felice Laverne, to guest blog about this important topic. Felice is a Diversity & Inclusion coach, literary agent, book editor, and author coach. She has established Diversity & Inclusion initiatives at global brands such as HarperCollins Publishers, and she has edited books such as Zerlina Maxwell’s Amazon #1 The End of White Politics and Paola Ramos’ Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity. She is the author of The Other Americans: A Novel. You can visit her at www.artanddecoagency.org.

 

Sensitivity reading is an important step toward diversity and inclusion in writing and publishing communities.

Equally importantly, if not more so, it’s an important step toward righting harmful stereotypes that have been perpetuated—and blindly believed in our culture—about marginalized communities. This includes communities of color, the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.

Sensitivity readers review final manuscripts, prior to going to press, to ensure that the stories of these communities are accurately told and portrayed.

Our role is to improve the final manuscript by pointing out areas where the author has obvious blind spots, which could harmfully and inaccurately portray marginalized communities of which the author is not a part.

Eliminating harmful typecasts and stereotypes in literature is critical, because literature has an impact on our perceptions of the world. Left to publication, these harmful stereotypes find their way into our everyday lives and perpetuate injustices and prejudices against these communities.

The sensitivity reader is also educating the author and editor along the way. By pointing out inaccuracies in the current manuscript, the reader trains the author and editor how to be more inclusive in the future. Hopefully next time around they’ll catch what they missed this time.

 

Why Are Sensitivity Readers Needed?

Close your eyes and imagine someone who is exactly unlike you culturally. Someone who is of a marginalized community. Now, imagine writing a book featuring this person you’ve imagined as a character. How would you write about someone who is so unlike you, whose experiences you’ve never actually felt yourself, whose hardships you’ve only ever read about?

A lot of times, without doing the proper research, authors may assume that these people or characters share some uniform experience, which is easy to color in with stereotypes they’ve read or heard about these communities in the past.

That’s how harmful stereotypes and untruths get introduced into literature and public discourse. And it’s what sensitivity reading helps to shield these communities from.

A sensitivity reader works directly with the author, or the editorial team of the author’s publisher, to point out blind spots of cultural insensitivity that the author or editor may have missed in writing or editing a manuscript.

Specifically, we point out blindspots in manuscripts that were written by authors who are not of the marginalized community that s/he is writing about.

 

 

We lend our expertise to the areas we can verify for authenticity and accuracy. Take, for example,  an author who is not of the LGBTQ+ community, writing a book featuring characters who are of that community. In this case, a member of the LGBTQ+ community may be asked to do a sensitivity read of that book to ensure that the experience of this marginalized group is accurately represented.

Why? Because from the outside looking in, it’s unlikely that that author would understand the holistic experience of what it means to be LGBTQ+.

Likewise, as an African-American woman, I do sensitivity reads for books that feature the black community, but are written by someone outside of that community—a white or Asian author, for example.

As a sensitivity reader for a Big 5 publisher, you’d be shocked at some of the cultural inaccuracies I’ve seen written into modern-day literature.

I read one book, written by a white woman, which was full of cultural inaccuracies about black people. After my read the author removed all of the African-American characters from the book and replaced them with white characters. A sad outcome, but a necessary one—as all of her black characters had been built off of harmful stereotypes.

It was clear that she had no idea what the experience of the black community is like, certainly not enough to write about it herself. She needed a sensitivity reader to point out these blind spots and inaccuracies of portrayal.

In this way, sensitivity readers function as the final catchall for authors, editors and publishing houses when it comes to stereotypes, bias and harmful or inaccurate information.

 

Isn’t This Censorship?

The answer to this question is, “Absolutely not.”

As an example, I’ve read books that have the N-word in them in reference to black people. While this is a harmful word that when used improperly can have many adverse effects, I would only ever ask the author to remove this word if it was used contextually inaccurately in a way that perpetuates an untrue black experience.

Censorship, on the other hand, would have them remove this word altogether, no matter the use. See the difference? Sensitivity readers of other communities would look for the same sort of cultural inaccuracies or harm being done to their communities through the author’s work.

As a first step toward true diversity and inclusion in literature, the decision to get a sensitivity read for your book is an important one. How can we say we have true diversity and inclusion in our contemporary literature if we continue to perpetuate prejudices, stereotypes and harmful thought processes around communities that are already marginalized? The answer is, “We can’t.” Luckily, there are editors who can and want to help.

Wondering if you need a sensitivity read on your manuscript? Here are a few signs:

  • Your work of fiction contains characters from traditionally marginalized groups of which you are not a part
  • Your memoir contains stories about people from traditionally marginalized groups and you want to make sure you’re portraying them fairly and accurately
  • You are writing prescriptive nonfiction (how-to, self-help, personal growth, etc.) and are including teachings about diversity and inclusion, but you are not an expert in this area

 

Want more help deciding whether a sensitivity read is right for you? We’d love to help! Feel free to schedule a call today.

 

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12 thoughts on “What’s a Sensitivity Read, and Why Is It Important? By Felice Laverne”

    • Thank you for reading! We are glad to introduce you to this amazing asset that can be added to your writing toolbox.

      Reply
  1. Thanks for articulating this work and bringing it into the world Felice (and Kelly).
    I’m an Australian Aboriginal lesbian with a protagonist who shares these qualities. My novel is mainly set in an Aboriginal community, where I’ve lived but did not grow up. Sensitivity and truth-telling, as well as engaging my reader, are constantly on my mind as I write.
    Sometimes I’m concerned that my readers might assume my novel is autobiographical because they think that any Aboriginal lesbian must be like me.
    The one that asks is the pure white woman with the rustling skirts that Wolf wrote about, that judge outside myself.
    Do you think a sensitivity editor could help a lot in encouraging me to speak authentically about Aboriginal experience, keeping me and my Aboriginal audience culturally safe? Thanks for the inspiration. I am thinking of a senior Aboriginal man who might be available to play this (paid) role for me.

    Reply
    • A sensitivity reader is never a bad idea, if only to ease your own mind about how you’re portraying a community you care about. I would absolutely look into hiring one to take a look at your story. Especially to help encourage your continued writing—Your story is important to get into the world!

      Reply
  2. Great blog, I had no idea sensitivity editors existed, but really glad they do!! I like how Felice talked about how it is not censorship, that is so important!! Thank you, enjoyed this piece.

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    • Thank you for your comment Marisa! The fact that it is not censorship is so important, we agree. We don’t want to NOT tell the story, we just want to tell it in a way that can be fully appreciated by all audiences without unknown bias.

      Reply
    • Absolutely! We are happy to let our audience know about this amazing tool. It helps us all to ensure a solid message is delivered to the world as intended.

      Reply
  3. Wonderful to read this! It feels really good to know this exists and is essential. I am an indigenous descendent and my teachings and writings are about my ancestors too. The ancestors are no longer here but a sensitive reader will be really important in my work.

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    • Claudia, Thanks for sharing. It sounds like your story would GREATLY benefit from a sensitivity reader. It’s awesome that you have recognized the importance it can have for your project and future readers!

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  4. I was wondering where I can find a Hispanic Mexican sensitivity reader? Every book I write, Screenplay, or tv show script is telling a story of Mexicans, Cubans, and Italians, but mostly Mexicans. I am African American female but tell Latino stories. I don’t know nothing about Latinos or Italians, but my fiction characters help me tell the stories of Latino’s and Italians. I don’t have any friends that are Mexicans is it possible I can just ask a female Mexican stranger to read my story and pay them $300 or $600 to do a sensitivity reading? I live in south Florida, but it’s very hard to find Mexicans since I’m not in California where most of them are, but I can find them way out west near the Sawgrass mills mall area.

    Reply
    • What a wonderful question, Tedera! Sensitivity readings are so important. Here at KN Literary Arts, we do have team members who are trained in sensitivity reading. You can always sign up here for a free call to check out that service. We do recommend that you seek out a professional for this task to keep your writing focused as well as culturally aligned to your characters. Thanks for the comment, and we hope to hear from you!

      Reply

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