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Sensitivity reading 101: a guide for writers
Writer, editorial consultant and sensitivity reader Lizzie Huxley-Jones explains what a sensitivity reader does and how they can help writers with their manuscripts.
There are a lot of myths about what sensitivity reading actually is particularly in the media. I've worked as a sensitivity reader across various genres for approximately four years, so hopefully I can help dispel some of them today!
What is sensitivity reading?
While 'sensitivity reading' is the most commonly used term, you might also come across 'authenticity reader' or, my personal preference, 'editorial consultancy.'
A sensitivity read is a form of editorial work that focusses on one particular aspect of the book or work, drawing from the reader's own lived experience and specialist knowledge.
For example, a sensitivity read report could review not only the whether the characterisation of an autistic character is authentic representation, but it will likely also consider factors such as the overarching plot, how other characters react and treat this character, and even make suggestions to the language used. At the end you get a report full of editorial guidance on many levels.
Why work with a sensitivity reader?
Sensitivity readers are important assets to our writing when we are working outside of our own experience.
For example, if you were writing a police procedural novel but had never worked in law enforcement, you might want to ask a police person a few questions about their work, or for them to look over your manuscript to spot any issues that aren't accurate.
To me, sensitivity reading is akin to this, but holds more significance as it's important for marginalised people to be able to read characters and stories that are not based in stereotypes or dangerous tropes. To write literature that can be enjoyed by everyone means being thoughtful and inclusive in our work.
How do you go about finding a sensitivity reader?
Several publishers have their own in-house databases of freelances that they use, so your editor should be able to help you find someone appropriate. If you're going at it alone, writing groups and social media can be a great place to find sensitivity readers.
When you've found someone, it's important to reach out to them either directly or through your editor with a number of key details:
- The character/issue the person would be reading for
- Some information about the character and their role in the plot (e.g. are they the villain, are they someone's child, are they the protagonist etc.)
- The word count of your manuscript
- What genre your book falls in, and, if for children's, what age range it is targeted at
- Ideal turnaround
- What stage of the publishing process you are in (e.g. early draft, pre-structural edits, pre-copy edits, final manuscript)
When is a good time to have a sensitivity read?
I have worked with authors at all steps along the publishing journey.
If you want a full report for your novel, I would recommend that as soon as you know you need a sensitivity reader to review your work, start looking for one. Timelines in publishing are often short, and quite often sensitivity readers are sent the book when it's about to be proofread. This is not ideal, as sensitivity readers look at the whole book, so it's possible that you might want to make structural edits based on their report. If you are agented, it's best to have a conversation with them about when in the process this should happen.
Equally, you could reach out to a sensitivity reader while you are drafting to have a paid-for conversation about key issues that tend to arise, which means you are armed with knowledge from the outset. This doesn't mean you won’t need a sensitivity reader to look over the manuscript when it's completed, but it will hopefully help guide your characterisation before issues arise.
Things to keep in mind when commissioning a sensitivity reading
First, a good sensitivity reader will not only be considering their own experiences, but also a broad view of experiences across their community. However, one person's opinion is still only one person's opinion. If you are keen and able to, it might be good to seek two people's reports on a single issue.
Sensitivity reading draws from lived experience as well as broad knowledge, and because of this there is an element of emotional labour that goes into reports, especially if readers are advising on issues that might be emotive. Therefore it tends to incur a higher fee than standard freelance editorial or proof reading.
All this being said, sensitivity reading is a powerful, important part of the collaborative writing process that could strengthen your work and ensure you write accurate, thoughtful characters