What the heck is sensitivity reading?
Today’s guest post on the tool of sensitivity reading comes from Patrice Williams Marks, an author and a sensitivity reader herself.
About fifteen years ago, I wrote a script based on real people: a famous British explorer, Samuel Baker, who found his future wife, a Hungarian aristocrat, on a slave block in Bulgaria.
He bought her freedom. The two eventually fell in love and set out on an adventure to find the source of the Nile.
I could only do so much research online, so I joined the Royal Geographical Society and traveled to London to read original manuscripts written by Samuel Baker.
I also had the pleasure of meeting descendants of Florence Baker in Salisbury, England.
They shared a diary written by her, along with little known facts and nuances about Florence that I could have only gotten from them.
After completing the script, I forwarded to them to check for accuracy. They caught a few missteps and I chose to make the changes.
I didn’t know it then, but that could have been considered a sensitivity read.
What is a sensitivity reader, anyway?
A sensitivity reader is someone who has a writing or editing background (or is simply an avid reader) with extensive personal experiences that they use to draw upon when they review projects submitted to them for misrepresentations, bias, racism, or unintentional stereotypes.
Sensitivity readers are not regular editors or censors. They do not proof, look for holes in stories, or rewrite or delete content. In fact, all projects given to sensitivity readers are given voluntarily.
Sensitivity readers simply read for what they consider to be offensive content, misrepresentation, or stereotypes, and point it out. The author of the content chooses whether to use their suggestions or not.
A sensitivity reader is also someone who specializes in a specific niche (African-American, Muslim, physically challenged, LGBTQ, Little People, the obese, etc.) and are part of the specific marginalized community that the author is writing about.
The sensitivity reader thoroughly reads over the material for bias, stereotypes, offensiveness, lack of understanding, etc., and creates a report for the client outlining their thoughts, why they feel something may be a problem, and offering possible solutions.
If you are writing about more than one marginalized group, and you are not part of those groups, then you would do well to hire sensitivity readers who specialize in each group.
Will a sensitivity reader censor the work?
The client makes the final decision whether to make the changes suggested, to make only a few changes, or to keep the project as is.
Some writers believe that they should be free to write whatever they want and not be scrutinized. That is true to a point. No one is forced to hire a sensitivity reader.
But authors who understand that their point of view is only one point of view and that others exist may want to hire a sensitivity reader.
If you grew up in the Hamptons but want to write about a family in the Chicago projects, you should not rely on how you “think” the characters would act, speak, or live (from what you’ve seen on television or the news), but have someone who has lived, or lives, that life as a sounding board.
Sensitivity reading is a service, another tool in the writer’s belt.
About the author
Patrice Williams Marks is a sensitivity reader, founder of courses that teach sensitivity reading, founder of a nonprofit charity, and founder of several film festivals with diverse entries from filmmakers and writers.
She also has a background in public relations, marketing, and journalism with an emphasis on research.
You can check out her free sensitivity reading course here and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.