Sensitivity Reading: Why Should You Care?

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Words are important and can have a real, tangible impact on people. You likely know this, otherwise you wouldn't be reading a blog post on an editor's website.

The response to an author's words is not always what the author intended, and that's where sensitivity reading comes in.

What is sensitivity reading?

Let's get something straight right off the bat. Sensitivity reading is not censorship. Censorship is removing something deemed offensive or unsuitable from a work. Sensitivity reading, on the other hand, is when someone goes over a piece of writing to ensure the words are used intentionally and authentically.

Sensitivity readers do not censor work; they flag areas of misrepresentation, possible biases, stereotypes, and any potentially offensive content. The goal here is for the author to see the effect of their words from a perspective other than their own.

Using words with an awareness of their effect is called using conscious language. As writers, it is our responsibility to use words with intention—to say what we mean to say. Sometimes, we can use a word or phrase that unintentionally causes a reader discomfort or does harm to a group of people. It doesn't mean we're bad people; it just means we have privileges or biases that cause us to overlook things like certain tropes or phrases.

For example, I might use the word "blind" casually without thinking of the consequences, and this could do harm to the visually-impaired community. Likewise, I may call someone "lame" as an insult, not realizing it is an ableist and degrading term. There are many phrases we use every day that we don't think about, but we need to think about them.

Those are examples of unintentional language usage. Sensitivity reading can apply to tropes as well if a character embodies a harmful stereotype. For instance, the gay best friend trope has harmful potential if that character is portrayed solely as a wing-person or a fashion advisor. A character like that would need to be fleshed out more to be represented authentically.

Sensitivity reading can also catch errors we overlook if we're writing from a viewpoint that is not our own. I'm white. If I write a story from the perspective of a Latinx protagonist, I need a Latinx person (ideally multiple Latinx people) to read over my work and see if I portrayed their experience authentically. This is simply a way of doing your research.

Conscious language and sensitivity reading apply to multiple aspects of life: behaviour, social status, sex and gender, body size, physical ability, religion, culture, race, ethnicity, mental illness, trauma, etc.

So, why should you care about sensitivity reading?

  • Hiring sensitivity readers will help your words be intentional and authentic.

  • Having an authentic story will show respect to your readers, and therefore they will respect you and your work.

  • Being aware of the impact of your words will make you a better writer and help you tell stories that have an impact.

As a writer, you know that you need to do your research and write with intention, and sensitivity readers will help you accomplish that. Using conscious language and avoiding harmful tropes is a learning process that will make you a better writer and a better person.

Further reading:

Where to find sensitivity readers:

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