Sensitivity Readers


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  1. #1
    Member MzSnowleopard's Avatar
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    Sensitivity Readers

    I read this term for the first time today in WD's Writer's Yearbook 2019. The blurb is at the bottom of page 7. The #MeToo Reckoning.

    Apparently it's spurred on by racism and insensitivity in YA and Romance novels, the blurb called them 'hot buttons'.

    I'd like to hear more about this, in greater detail.
    Last edited by MzSnowleopard; January 16th, 2019 at 05:49 AM.
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  2. #2
    Mentor Dluuni's Avatar
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    I think part of this is because it has become less acceptable to release with painful and offensive stereotypes in the place of characters, like they used to in the past. If you have a character that is a member of a minority in your piece, it is probably best to include at least one member of that minority in your pre-readers so they can point out mistakes and awfulness and help with your research.
    I lost about twenty years of my life because of bad stereotypes in place of real representation - basically everything between high school and middle age is just gone and I can never get it back. I'm a bit sore about that, I don't want to see it perpetuated any more, and if we see someone spreading the sorts of things that misinformed us and the people around us, today we have the ability to write and disseminate reviews warning people about them. Various communities have organized and become very good at telling people worldwide if something is good or bad representation; you want to be part of the good, not the bad for obvious reasons.

  3. #3
    I think sensitivity readers started for the reasons @Dlunni mentioned - it's good to get an insider perspective if you're writing a character who is significantly different from yourself. Originally, I think this was done on a voluntary basis - A person writing a character from Group X would ask for a Group X person to beta read for them, a Group X person would volunteer, and things went on well. But as more and more people are writing from varied perspectives (a good thing!), people from Group X started getting tired of working to help other people all the time at the expense of their own pursuits. So the non-X writers would be frustrated b/c they WANTED to be responsible but couldn't find a way, and the Group X people would be frustrated because they were being pressured to put in more work than they wanted.

    Paid "sensitivity readers" often work for publishers rather than authors, but I think some self-published authors hire them directly.

    I'm currently writing a book with a Sikh MC and a double-amputee MC, and I'm hoping to find sensitivity readers for both parts, just to catch the little errors I don't know I'm making. Like, I know Sikh people in real life, so I feel like I've got a reasonable grasp on that, but I haven't intimately lived their lives and there may be things I include in the story that don't ring true because of that. And I don't actually know any double amputees in real life, so I want to get an authentic perspective on how I'm portraying that, as well.

    Some people seem to think it's a form of censorship, but I see it as a form of research. If I know I don't know something, I can look it up. But there's probably stuff I don't know I don't know, and that's where sensitivity readers come in.

    (And, yes, from a financial perspective I'd vastly prefer it if I could persuade people to do this for free. And possibly the groups I'm looking at are under-represented enough that I could still find people who are willing to read just as a favour. But if I can't find them for free, I'll try to find someone I can pay.)

  4. #4
    Interesting- so basically you have 'sensitivity readers' go through your manuscript to point out PC problems before publishing. Sort of like looking for allergins in a recipe before the dish is served.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin View Post
    Interesting- so basically you have 'sensitivity readers' go through your manuscript to point out PC problems before publishing. Sort of like looking for allergins in a recipe before the dish is served.
    "PC problems" has layers of political stuff that I'm not comfortable with... "PC" is often used to dismiss valid concerns.

    I think a lot of the time sensitivity readers can pick up really prosaic, non-political, non-controversial stuff. I'm not trying to find sensitivity readers because I'm worried about offending people, I'm trying to find sensitivity readers because I want to get my story right.

    If I write a story with a really near-sighted character and I have that character wake up in the middle of the night and NOT grope for her glasses before investigating a sound, I haven't written something that's likely to offend a near-sighted reader, but I've missed the opportunity to make my character as real and vivid as possible. Now, I used to wear glasses so I know about this issue, and I think glasses-wearers are common enough that I'd likely have someone point this out to me just in the normal course of beta reading or editing. But if it were a more obscure disability, I think I might benefit from getting someone who deals with it to read my story.

    When I write stories that involve guns, I try to get someone who uses guns a lot to read the story over to catch little glitches. I know I've been caught over-doing the recoil a shooter would feel from a certain weapon... I wrote the recoil as being a serious thing, and the reader told me that for a character that size firing that gun, it really wouldn't have been such a big deal. That's good for me to know, and I'm glad it got caught. Again, not because I worry about being "PC", but because I like my books to accurately reflect what I'm trying to portray.

    ETA: Sensitivity readers do tend to come from under-represented cultures, so they'd be more focused on the cultural stuff than something as prosaic as guns. But it's no less useful for a sensitivity reader to tell me that... I don't know, that I was right that Sikh's want shoes off before people enter the home, but it was really unlikely that the hostess would show any sign that she was offended by a character NOT doing that. Hospitality trumps shoe-etiquette. Maybe. But I'm not a Sikh insider, so I can't know that for sure. My sensitivity reader could help me out with that.

  6. #6
    Member Guard Dog's Avatar
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    Bayview, I don't get the impression you're so much in need of, or wanting, Sensitivity Readers as much as Technical Advisors.

    In other words, you want accuracy more than you want the latest public opinion, demand, or preferred image of any particular group(s).

    Is that about right?


    G.D.
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    Screw with it, and it'll eat you alive.

    Soon enough, nations will play second fiddle to corporations.

    "The world is not what we wish it to be; it is what it is."
    "Freedom is the value, not protection."

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Guard Dog View Post
    Bayview, I don't get the impression you're so much in need of, or wanting, Sensitivity Readers as much as Technical Advisors.

    In other words, you want accuracy more than you want the latest public opinion, demand, or preferred image of any particular group(s).

    Is that about right?


    G.D.
    I feel like you and I have very different perceptions of what sensitivity readers do. Can you explain what your perception is based on?

  8. #8
    In line with the "sensitivity" subject, I have run into a few issues in my writing. I like writing historical novels/stories and I am often faced with the insensitivity of the times I am writing about. I struggle with this all of the time, because past events involving people of color were often brutal. But if my story is about people or a family who lived during those times, it would be amiss to not include them, especially if the events were germane to the story line. I also struggle with some descriptions and I'm not even sure this is a sensitive issue or not. I sometimes feel compelled to identify race when my character is a person of color, but not so much if they are not. I don't know why I feel that way, but in my head when I am writing, I see them and while I am not usually a fan of physical descriptions, sometimes I try other methods (i.e. "dark features," "ebony skin," etc.). I do wonder how people of color see that.

    I am never disrespectful, but I think the sensitivity issues have gone so far beyond just being respectful. I guess the most obvious example I can think of is saying Merry Christmas to a non-Christian. Somehow that has become offensive and while I have never met anyone who is offended by the greeting, public opinion (media) seems to say it is so. I don't know why anyone would be upset by a warm wish for good will. Anyway, other examples exist.

    I wouldn't mind a "fact checker," but a sensitivity checker seems to squelch creativity somewhat.
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  9. #9
    Member Guard Dog's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bayview View Post
    I feel like you and I have very different perceptions of what sensitivity readers do. Can you explain what your perception is based on?
    Do we?

    I see sensitivity readers as being people that are more concerned with someone not getting their feelings hurt, due to some commonly-held belief ( right or wrong ) being included in a writing.

    I also think that if you get a member of some group or the other that is actually not a typical example of that particular group, that they may not actually be as capable in that capacity as the writer might want, either due to them not being sensitive to some of the things most other members would be, or due to them not agreeing with the more vocal members of that community.

    After all, being 'Politically Correct' isn't necessarily about being accurate to to the behavior or characteristics of any particular person or group of people, it's about what they want.

    The job of a Tech Advisor though, is to ensure accuracy... whether it's concerning a particular culture - and that includes anything from your Sikh example, to the crew of a nuclear submarine - or how closed-door legal proceedings are conducted, without regard for anone's feelings on the subject.

    Let me ask you this: which would you rather have as an advisor concerning a story of a Japanese-American that was held in a concentration camp during WW II, someone who wanted to express a personal view of the experience, or someone who wanted to give a detailed account of what it was actually like from a technical perspective, leaving you the writer to construct both the story and the character's opinion and beliefs concerning the experience?

    A Sensitivity Reader is likely to give you the first, with only their personal perspective of things, where a Technical Advisor is much more likely to give you the second, along with several examples or accounts of how various people handled the situation.

    And my thinking is, due to you saying you valued accuracy over any concerns of offending anyone, that you'd prefer the latter.


    G.D.
    Leave it be and it won't bother you.
    Screw with it, and it'll eat you alive.

    Soon enough, nations will play second fiddle to corporations.

    "The world is not what we wish it to be; it is what it is."
    "Freedom is the value, not protection."

  10. #10
    Sensitivity readers vet a book for steriotyoes, biases, offensive language in regards to portrayals of, or references to, the underrepresented.

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