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.
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.