Don’t Throw Sensitivity Readers Under the Bus!

I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post today. I have character studies, a timeline, and an outline to finish by Oct. 1 so I can start writing! But I saw something on Twitter that got my dander up and I couldn’t ignore it.

A few people were talking about how they were afraid to act as sensitivity readers or at least to be named as an SR for fear of being blamed for problems in a book and/or being thrown under the bus by the authors themselves. I’m not in the least upset about the readers expressing their concerns, but by the authors that have generated these concerns in the first place.

So, as a straight, white, cis-gendered, able bodied, relatively neuro-average, raised-Christian woman, I’d like to speak to my fellow non-marginalized authors for a second. This will be not-so-brief and but also not all encompassing. If I’ve missed something, please feel free to add in the comments. This is about helping my fellow authors who will hire sensitivity readers and how to do it right!

First, let’s talk about sensitivity readers. What are they? If you aren’t familiar with the term (and I really, really hope you are) they are readers who reflect a particular identity that can advise you on whether you have gotten that representation correct. Some offer these services to friends for free. Others are for-hire editors or advisers.

Why would marginalized people be afraid to take on this kind of work? Especially when they are paid? (The going rate is around $250 per manuscript.) Because sometimes—and this is not an ‘always’ so please don’t not-all-white-people me—when a book comes out an author may use those sensitivity readers as a shield to justify what they’ve done. Or others may point to the sensitivity reader and say they got it wrong and allowed an author to write about their shared identity incorrectly. You can see why SR’s would not want to be the scapegoats in any of these situations.

So what can we do about this? Because we all want to continue to write, and hire experienced, knowledgeable people to help us get better, right? Here are a few steps that can make this situation a little bit better for all involved:

Step 1 – Is My Premise Flawed to Begin With?

Some authors jump into writing something they probably shouldn’t be writing in the first place. How do you know if your premise is flawed or it’s something you have no business writing? The best place to start would be to ask other writers or readers or even friends who represent the identity you want to write about and run your idea by them (as in multiple people, not just one). Make sure your basic premise isn’t unfixable from the beginning. Slave/master romance? Nazi/Jewish person romance? Story with a white savior protagonist? Chances are these stories not only have already been done badly, they aren’t even capable of being done well. Some ideas are just problematic no matter the execution. So ask around and get a feel before you delve too deeply into something that even a sensitivity reader can’t tell you how to fix.

Step 2 – Do Your Research

I cannot stress this one enough: IT IS NOT A SENSITIVITY READER’S JOB TO WRITE THEIR IDENTITY FOR YOU! You need to do the work to make this character as appropriate and as true to representation as you can first before the SR ever sees a word of your MS. You have to read, listen, learn, watch vlogs, watch movies, TV, and read books made by people who represent the identity they are depicting (Own Voices). And even then you will make mistakes. You will never write a marginalized character as well as a person who represents that identity. You just can’t. But you have a responsibility as an author to make it the absolute best you possibly can.

Which goes back to whether you should write this at all. There are stories no one should tell (see above) and stories that should only be told by a person who represents that identity. Black character during the Civil Rights movement? Should only be written by a black writer. LGBTQIA character in connection with equal rights and marriage equality? Should only be written by an LGBTQIA writer. Story centering the Muslim religion and Islamaphobia? Should only be written by a Muslim writer. It may be hard to discern if it’s your place to tell a story, so be sure to ask others and read a lot about the subject. You may realize it’s not your story to tell on your own.

Step 3 – Don’t Be Afraid to Pay a Sensitivity Reader

We all critique manuscripts. At least, I hope you do. In order to become better writers and to help out those coming behind us, we are going to need to be beta readers and critique partners throughout our careers. So think about the amount of time you spend on another manuscript. It’s hours upon hours. I like to read the whole MS first, to get a feel for continuity, plot, and reader satisfaction. After that I read it again, critiquing along the way for all the important things like grammar, spelling, sentence structure, word usage, plot, characters, etc., etc. And someone else is doing that for you in return. It’s a give-and-get relationship. But for a sensitivity reader, you generally can’t give back to them without monetary payment. They can beta and critique with their own writing friends, but you need their specialized skill, an experience and knowledge you do not have!

“But I’m white—or whatever your non-marginalization is—I can read their non-marginalized characters and see if they’ve got it right.” Well, you see, this doesn’t work, because where you need them for their lived experience, they live in a world where they are expected to live, know, and conform to your non-marginalization every day. They probably already know your identity as well or better than you do. It’s not an equal trade. You wouldn’t bat an eye at seeking an expert’s opinion on something like science or medicine or government, so don’t discount the value of a marginalized person’s knowledge and experience when it comes to characters reflecting their life.

Step 4 – Don’t Be Afraid to Hire Multiple Sensitivity Readers

Okay, this one is difficult, because hiring SR’s costs money, on average $250 a pop. Most beginning authors (like me) can’t really afford that. I’ll be honest, I have only hired one SR for my current MS on submission. I have spoken to people prior to ever writing and received advice as to the direction I should take, but I have not been able to put more money into a novel that might not sell. But you can be damn sure that if I’m offered a contract for this book, I’ll be hiring more SR’s even if it comes directly out of my own pocket. One opinion is not enough, especially if you’re writing about multiple marginalizations like I do.

It’s understandable if you can’t hire SR’s, or multiple SR’s, but you need to then consider: Am I sure this is an acceptable premise to begin with? Will I hire SR’s later when this MS has financial viability? And if I can’t afford to hire SR’s should I be writing this story in the first place?

Step 5 – Listen to the Advice of Your Sensitivity Reader

When you work with a beta reader or critique partner you need to make a decision based on their critique and your own belief about the story whether their advice is really the best for you. But when you work with a sensitivity reader, ignoring their advice can be fatal for your book. You’re stating then and there that the vision you have for your book is far more important to you than the representation you offer the world and the feelings of your readers. That your view of the situation supersedes the knowledge and experience of a person who has actually lives your character’s identity.

I don’t like to be unequivocal. There’s no hard and fast rule for “you must do everything your sensitivity reader tells you to”. There are exceptions, but they better be damn good. You need multiple other sensitivity readers’ opinions that counteract the one that tells you to change it, and not your one (insert marginalization here) friend who says it’s okay. And even then YOU WILL HURT READERS! Someone somewhere is going to have the same opinion as the sensitivity reader who disagreed with you, and they will be hurt by your words. Which brings us to Step 6.

Step 6 – Understand That No Identity is a Monolith

This should really go with out saying, and if this is news to you, you probably shouldn’t be writing that marginalized character. What harms and offends one gay man, is another’s lived experience. What seems inaccurate to one Latina could be the way another grew up. You will never get an absolute consensus on a person’s life. For that matter, no white person, no straight person, no anybody has a tried-and-true-always-happens identity. And if you’re thinking that all lesbians or all people with Cerebral Palsy or all Muslims are the same as the next, that’s called a stereotype and you should really re-think whether you’re the right person to write this story.

Step 7 – Determine with Your SR’s if They Want to Remain Anonymous

Every SR should be thanked in the acknowledgements of your book, but the question is whether they should receive a general “I thank all of my SR’s for their hard work and all inaccuracies and mistakes are mine and mine alone” or if they would like to be named as you often do with critique partners. This is primarily up to the SR. They may be proud of and happy with your work and what they have done to perfect it. Or they might not want to be blamed in case you didn’t take their advice or their advice differs from another’s lived experience.

Everyone has different feelings on this and you need to take theirs into consideration. You do not want to create a problem for them. Whether you took their advice is your fault, not theirs. And if they advised you based on their experience, then they have done their job to the best of their abilities and should not receive flack for it. It’s okay for others to disagree in reviews, but that doesn’t mean an SR should take personal attacks for the differences.

Step 8 – Be Prepared to Take Criticism Graciously and Apologize if Necessary

You should probably accept right now that someone somewhere is not going to like the representation you present in the book. As we discussed before, no identity is a monolith and everyone is going to have unique experiences to draw from. In fact, even marginalized writers receive criticism for their own experiences because they are not the same as another’s experience and can be considered incorrect or problematic. So a person who does not represent that identity is going to almost certainly have concerns brought up in reviews.

You should be prepared to apologize. And more importantly, learn. Listen closely to what reviewers are saying. If it’s too difficult for you to read criticism like that, ask a friend to read them and summarize the concerns in a non-confrontational way. And listen to it! If a reviewer is telling the world they have been hurt by your words, that’s on you. That’s not someone being too sensitive or trying to be mean and hurt your feelings. They are not bullies, even if we feel that they are. We threw the first punch by writing something that hurts. Don’t expect people to be gentle with your feelings, even if you didn’t know you were throwing a punch in the first place. Time to own up and apologize.

Step 9 – Do Not Throw Your SR’s Under the Bus

And no matter what, never blame your sensitivity readers. Remember, no identity is a monolith. Everyone has unique experiences. An apology that in any way says, “But my SR said it was okay . . . ” even indirectly or implied, is not an apology. It’s trying to get the heat off you.

It’s not only unprofessional to push the blame on a business partner (because that’s what an SR is) it is also peak trash human. Don’t do it. Sensitivity readers put their emotional well-being on the line to read your work. Yes, they are getting  paid for it, but $250 is not really all that much when you consider the amount of time it takes to critique a manuscript, adding on the fact that they are opening themselves up to reading potentially harmful words. Reading stories with bigoted or problematic content is emotionally harmful to the reader. And we should be falling on our knees thanking our SR’s who are taking on that job so that readers in the future—teen readers—don’t have to endure that pain.