Sensitivity Reading and the Power of Words

I read an interesting post about sensitivity readers over the weekend, and by interesting, I mean more than a bit offensive and - accidentally, I'm quite certain - an excellent demonstration of why sensitivity readers are important if an author/editor/publisher wants to avoid a public trouncing. (I'll come back to why I have phrased it this way.)

For those reading this post who don't know already, a sensitivity reader is someone a publisher/author asks to read a manuscript to check for potentially offensive/problematic content. This includes the deployment of discriminatory/offensive language, events that may act as psychological triggers and anything else that may be considered a 'sensitive subject' for some readers.

Sensitivity readers have specific expertise, either through professional affiliation and experience (e.g. a nurse in palliative care fact-checking a book dealing with the treatment of terminal illness) or because they are part of the political minority* being written about.

*Political majority/minority refers to the distribution of power, not the size of the population. In the UK, white males are the political majority because they hold more power than any other group, even though there are more females than males (51 and 49 percent of the general population respectively: ONS, 2016).

The discussion I read was, on the whole, against publishers using sensitivity readers, for three reasons:
1. Sensitivity readers are only there to mop up after authors who don't do their research;
2. Sensitivity reading is censorship;
3. Sensitivity reading is political correctness gone mad.
Up to a point, I agree with the first of these arguments. A good author WILL do their research, and if there are persistent and serious errors in their writing - well, they probably need to start over or think about a change of career. Even when they have researched, there is every likelihood errors will sneak past. If the author is publishing independently, then they live and die by their own pen. However, if they've entrusted their work to a publisher, then they should safely presume their publisher has got their back.

That said, no amount of research is going to give an author the necessary insight into what it is like to be a member of a different group than their own, which is why sensitivity reading (but perhaps we need to call it something else) is crucial. One of the comments on the post I read demonstrated this point perfectly:
Like writing about transgendered teens... Having someone [who] lives that particular lifestyle read your not a bad thing.
The comment was arguing in favour of sensitivity reading, although the commenter contended that asking a knowledgeable someone to read should be part of the author's research process, and again, I agree with that. An author does have a responsibility to research as thoroughly as possible - that or pass off their work as fantasy set in a close parallel universe, thereby neutralising factual inconsistencies. And I really don't like the connotation of 'sensitivity reading'. It implies an unnecessary fuss is being made, which trivialises the way language operates as a source of power.

Language as a source of power is the salient issue, and the comment highlights one of the ways this operates. Being a transgendered teen is not a 'lifestyle'. A lifestyle is a set of choices we make about how we live. No-one ever refers to the average white heterosexual male's existence as a 'lifestyle'. There is no choice involved in being white, straight or male. You just are. Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), being black, bisexual, gay, transgender, female, non-binary... is not a lifestyle or a preference. It is who we are.

Othering is another process we authors unconsciously engage in, and it requires more than conscious engagement to tackle. I'm white English, and it is my 'default' character identity. Thus, on an unconscious level, I won't mention the character's ethnicity if they are white English but I will if they're not, and in all probability I'll assume the character is white in another author's work unless they tell me otherwise. I'm not consciously racist, and I kind of hate myself for being unconsciously so, but I accept that I'm a product of my society, and being aware of that gives me the opportunity to constantly critically engage with the way I think and write. I'm going to get it wrong. It's inevitable. But through researching thoroughly and asking for guidance from those I write about, I give my best effort to not causing harm to another.

And that's key, really. Not causing harm.

Reading the comments on that post (and the article that started the discussion), publishers' incorporating sensitivity reading into their publishing process is perceived as unnecessary censorship by authors/readers, but in the age of indie publishing, authors don't have to kow-tow to publishers, so the censorship argument is irrelevant (Amazon and other vendors have content censorship in place, but that's something else entirely).

What's also important here is that publishers are doing this to avoid litigation (the public trouncing I mentioned at the start). The censorship and sensitivity to the concerns of political minorities are by-products only.

When we use terms like 'censorship', 'offensive' and 'sensitivity' we feed into the notion that this is indeed about political correctness and namby-pamby millennial culture. But it's not. This is about the power of words, and how those words cause real harm. If we describe someone's gender as a lifestyle, or their sexuality as a preference, if we posit a character's 'blackness' above all other aspects of their identity, we are exercising power, and we are endangering people's lives, because at the other end of the scale are the extremes of racism, sexism, gender/sexuality and other forms of discrimination and oppression: conversion therapy, psychiatric/criminal incarceration, white supremacy.

We each have our own world view, and whilst it's shaped by and may be shared with those around us, it is uniquely ours. Our individuality is something to be celebrated, both in ourselves and in others. But that requires more than sensitivity. It requires respect and an understanding that our right to freedom of speech comes with a responsibility that we exercise it wisely.

Thanks for reading,
Deb x

Office of National Statistics (2016) 'UK population by country of birth and nationality grouping, by sex and age: 2014' (Accessed 20/02/2017)


  1. It's probably pretty limiting, but I do tend to stick to things I know fairly intimately or have family & friends who do. I never would've written some characters if I hadn't been sure that either a beta reader or a family member could look it over first. My publisher doesn't specifically hire sensitivity readers, and I cannot afford to hire one either. So I'd rather just write things that I can ask someone directly about and which aren't taking up space best used by someone who actually lives that experience.

    I chose not to get involved, but last week one author went after another because Author #1's opinion was that Author #2 didn't "correctly" represent. Turned out Author #2 was #OwnVoices writing her personal experiences. A professional is often preferable to a random stranger with a chip and accusations to hurl.

    1. I do much the same. I'd rather write about what I know (that's challenge enough). But as you say, if we tackle stuff outside of our specialism (for want of a better word), then we don't do it on our own, even if the person looking it over is doing so informally.

      I had a friend who was an expert witness on legal cases, and I remember her commenting on how remarkable it was that two professionals could see the same situation in strikingly different ways. I think the same is true with sensitivity readers. Having someone look over a manuscript isn't going to proof it so that it becomes a universal truth.

      The 'incorrect representation' criticism is one of the most maddening (to me). The people levelling it seem to be unaware that they're employing the generalising principles as underpin sexism, racism, etc.

    2. I do best when I'm capturing an experience I've had. Not so much as a person but something I've lived through. I've noticed those are the books readers respond most favorably to, whether or not I've written about "someone like me" or "someone like them."

      It's absolutely true that two people can see things in vastly different ways. And have vastly different experiences even when sharing common traits.

      I'm always bothered by the "incorrect representation" thing, if for no other reason than that no two people are going to share 100% of all their experiences no matter how many identity facets they share. I had an interesting conversation with someone who came from the same fundamentalist religious environment I did, and we had a chuckle over how we both thought the other had been a bit over-the-top when writing about it. That's because her experience and mine were similar but not the same and yet weirdly parallel, too.


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