Written by A Guest Author September 28th, 2023

What’s a Sensitivity Reader, Why They Are Important, and How To Hire One

By Niesha Davis

A sensitivity reader is a type of editor that looks at manuscripts and other works of art to ensure minorities and diverse identities are accurately represented. After the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements ushered in a social reckoning, these specialized types of editors are becoming more and more prominent. Though authenticity readers are being used much more now, they are far from new.

A sensitivity reader is a vital resource for authors and creators seeking to ensure that their work is inclusive, accurate, and respectful of diverse identities and experiences. Sensitivity readers critique dialogue, scenes, characters, plot points, and so much more.

Since I’ve begun doing this work, I’ve provided feedback on manuscripts, screenplays, visual art, and even educational material, helping to identify potential issues related to representation, cultural sensitivity, and accuracy. By incorporating the insights of these specialized editors, creators can avoid harmful stereotypes, misrepresentations, and cultural appropriation in their literature, artwork, or marketing materials.

Sensitivity Readers in Literature and Pop Culture

Sensitivity readers have gained prominence in recent years, particularly in the publishing industry. One notable example is the young adult novel The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, which underwent a sensitivity review process to ensure an accurate portrayal of a mixed-race, gay teenager’s experiences. In early 2023 revisions were made to several Roald Dahl books  after publisher Puffin Books hired sensitivity readers to review the texts. Passages related to gender, weight, mental health, and race were changed.

Expanding beyond literature, the film and television industry has begun incorporating intimacy coordinators and consultants to handle scenes involving physical intimacy and sexual situations, with care and respect. HBO’s The Deuce, a show about the early days of the adult film industry in 1970s NYC, employed Alicia Rodis as an intimacy coordinator, while sex educator Annie Sprinkle consulted.

Other shows like HBO’s Euphoria and Netflix’s Sex Education have utilized intimacy coordinators to ensure the actors’ comfort and safety during vulnerable scenes.

Should I Be Hiring a Sensitivity Reader?

Unless you’re writing a story about a homogeneous society, writing outside of your culture or viewpoint might be a necessity. But, the first thing I tell my consulting clients is to dig deep and ask, “Is this my story to tell?” Examine your reasoning behind writing certain characters, or even wanting to tell this story in the first place. Does the world need another white savior story, or Eat, Pray, Love 2.0, for instance?

First and foremost, sensitivity readers help avoid harmful stereotypes, inaccuracies, and cultural appropriation in creative works. Their feedback fosters more authentic and respectful representations of diverse identities and experiences, ultimately resonating with a broader and more engaged audience. Furthermore, sensitivity readers can assist in steering creators away from negative reviews or backlash from communities that feel misrepresented or excluded. Their expertise acts as a compass, guiding creators towards more mindful and inclusive storytelling.

Finding a Sensitivity Reader

With the expansion of diversity editing and consulting as a service, there are several ways to find a reputable reader. Organizations like Binders Full of Sensitivity Readers can connect you to the right people. Other directories like Salt & Sage and Writing in the Margins offer comprehensive listings of sensitivity readers with a variety of expertise. Additionally, you can do hashtag searches on platforms like Instagram, or reach out to individuals like myself.

Questions to Ask Before Hiring

To ensure successful collaboration, it is crucial to ask potential sensitivity readers pertinent questions that align with your project’s goals. Some key things to consider are:

  • What is their experience with sensitivity reading? Literally, have they done this before? Testimonials are a great way for editors to show and prove their abilities.
  • Do they have lived experience in the background or subject matter? This isn’t always necessary, but it’s a great indicator that the editor has a good, real-world grasp of the topic
  • How do they give feedback and critique? Do they have a system or process?
  • Are they charging a professional rate?

Can’t I just ask a friend?

While seeking input from a friend may be convenient and cost-effective, it is crucial to remember that sensitivity reading is a specialized skill requiring expertise and training. As an authenticity editor, I do bring lived experience to the role, but I also bring over ten years of experience as a journalist and editor, and years of activism in the LGBTQ community, not to mention other life experiences like teaching ESL abroad, for instance.

Your friend may not possess the necessary education or experience to provide you with accurate and helpful feedback. As such, it’s important to remember that when it comes to sensitivity reading, you get what you pay for.

Remember, a Diversity Consultant Isn’t a Stamp of Approval

As more people become hip to sensitivity reading, I’ve noticed some potential clients who come to me with the wrong intentions. When I first started this work in 2019, I naively thought that all my clients were upstanding and interested in being better, more open-minded writers. Boy was I wrong. Over the years I’ve run into a few clients who think sensitivity reading is nothing more than a stamp of approval. One client was deeply offended when I suggested some of her chapters read as tone-deaf and racist.

Sensitivity editors are only one part of the process, it’s still up to you to do your background research and be open to hearing and digesting the feedback on the work you create.

Bio: As a sensitivity reader, Niesha’s clients include Penguin Random House, Vox, The Zagat Brand, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other businesses and authors. Additionally, she is a writer, editor, and social media manager.



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