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What Is Sensitivity Reading?

Updated: Jun 11



Sensitivity reading is a type of manuscript evaluation that checks whether characters are portrayed with authenticity, respect, and sensitivity and helps books avoid harmful stereotypes and problematic language. Subjects authors and publishers ask sensitivity readers to provide feedback for include race, religion, gender, sexuality, chronic illnesses, mental disorders, and physical disabilities. It is also called “authenticity reading” and “cultural competency reading.”

The main goal of sensitivity reading is to improve the literary quality of the book. It would be incredibly limiting to insist authors only “write what they know,” and thus only write about characters who look like them and have lived lives like theirs with cultural backgrounds like theirs. Sensitivity readers want a world of diverse books, and they want to help authors write books that make sense when it comes to characters and subjects outside of their comfort zones.

But, let’s be honest, there’s a certain level of “cover your butt” when it comes to sensitivity reading, too. No author wants to suffer the consequences of releasing a book that is unintentionally offensive. Sensitivity readers also save authors dings to their reputations, mountains of negative reviews, tweets, and other types of feedback, and fallout with readers and publishers. To the author or publisher, it means a few hundred dollars, but that’s a small price in return for possibly saving an author’s career.

What Sensitivity Reading Is Not

When some people learn of sensitivity reading, they think of it as censorship and sanitization and the people who do it as the PC police. When done correctly, that is not the truth. For example, if a writer creates a character who is offensive in some way (say they are racist or homophobic), and that is the author’s intention, a sensitivity reader should not try to change that character to make them less offensive. Sensitivity reading comes into play when the author is accidentally offensive or inauthentic or hits a cultural blind spot.

It is also not a shield for writers and publishers to hide behind. While sensitivity readers do their best to assess materials, they are not mind readers. Something that seems neutral to them may not be neutral to a reader. They are not to be blamed if a reader takes issue with a piece of content the author wrote.

What Does a Sensitivity Read Look Like?

I can tell you what I do when I work on a sensitivity read. I read through the manuscript in Microsoft Word and leave comments within the document when I come across material I have concerns about and also when I want to confirm for the author that what they wrote fits with my experience. I also write a three- to ten-page document detailing my general thoughts and addressing any specific issues that warranted additional comment.

How Do I Hire One?

It just so happens Dot and Dash now offers sensitivity reading. To learn more about it and what subjects we read for, go here or email me at Erin@dotanddashllc.com.

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