How to work effectively with a sensitivity reader

The call for more diversity in fiction is leading to an uptick in demand for sensitivity readers, which is inevitably leading to some conversations about the role of sensitivity readers, what exactly it is that we do, and how to work with us most effectively. (Yes, you read that right: Among the many things I do is sensitivity reading not just for works of fiction, but also conference proposals, policy papers, and all sorts of things — if that’s something you need, email me (sesmith at realsesmith dot com).) Everyone works a bit differently and has different recommendations, so this is a loose and general guide (that also gives you a sense of how I work).

What is a sensitivity reader and why do I need one? 

Sensitivity readers (known by a variety of names) are people who read manuscripts or other written materials to assess how a particular experience or issue is depicted. They’re offering a very unique kind of feedback that applies lived experience and personal familiarity with a subject (like disability, race, sexuality, gender, class, or religion, among other things) to a text written by someone who doesn’t share that experience. Generally speaking, sensitivity readers don’t take on projects that include experiences they aren’t intimately familiar with (e.g. I will not do sensitivity reads for race).

Whether you need one is kind of up to you, but there are a lot of advantages to working with sensitivity readers. They can catch things you might have missed, offer constructive suggestions for making your work stronger, and help you tackle challenging subjects in your books. For example, if you’re white and afraid of writing about race, work with people of colour — specifically, those who share the race(s) you are writing about — to learn more about their experiences and, hopefully, do justice to them. In an example, I had a sensitivity reader review a piece of mine, and she caught a racial microaggression I completely missed, allowing me to correct it before publishing.

Do not mistake a sensitivity reader with a consultant or a source for research. Long before you take a project to a reader, you should have been interacting with the people you are writing about to learn more about their lives. That may include reading autobiographical works, following media and journalism, and so forth, but it should also include talking to people directly. When you get the germ of a story, start talking to people. From the start, include people in the development of your project — a sensitivity reader is the final polish, not the first cut of your gem.

Okay so how does working with one work, exactly?

It really depends on the reader. Approach as early as possible in a project to discuss what you are doing and what your needs are — you may be advised to work with developmental editors to perfect a draft before it goes to a reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been brought on as an afterthought, only to tell extremely disappointed clients that their project has such fundamental flaws that they should probably scrap it and start over. Be prepared with a concrete outline and scope of work, and an estimate on how long the project will be and when it will be done, because people have busy schedules and they want to make sure they have room for you.

When you’re ready with material, you’ll send it over, your reader should be able to provide a turnaround estimate, and you’ll get an annotated document and edit letter in return.

This is the important part: You need to really consider what your reader has to say, even if it upsets you or makes you uncomfortable. You took a good step by requesting a read in the first place, but sensitivity readers aren’t a rubber stamping service: They’re investing their energy and experience in assessing your work, and you should respect their time and energy. If you’re feeling defensive and unhappy, or stressed out, or wanting to throw your project out because your reader raised some concerns, politely thank your sensitivity reader, say you may be in touch with followups, set your work aside, and let that feedback sit with you. When you’re feeling emotionally prepared, come back to it. Interrogate your responses to the feedback — if you disagree with something, why? How does a comment make you feel? Are you eager to justify something, and going to great lengths to do so? Is this a hill you want to die on? (Is it really important that your Chinese character have ‘almond-shaped eyes’? That your trans girl has an Adam’s apple?) Sensitivity readers know what is socially loaded from personal experience, and they are generously gifting you that experience. No, every single Black/disabled/Asian/Muslim/Hindu/trans/Native/queer/lesbian/gay/bi/Latinx/indigenous/Buddhist/etc person is not going to agree unilaterally on everything, and your sensitivity reader isn’t the ultimate authority, but they know a lot. (And some will acknowledge relevant cultural differences of opinion, e.g. ‘I find this offensive, though I know that some disabled people do not’ or ‘as a Black American reader, this feels like a microaggression, though I know that some Black British people don’t see it this way.’)

What kinds of questions should I be asking?

Most of us want to be up front with you and we don’t want you to be confused, uncertain, or disappointed by any aspect of your experience. We encourage you to ask questions, because they can help everyone involved outline their needs and expectations.

  • What are your rates? Many people list basic rates on their websites as a starting point, but they can vary depending on the specifics of the project.
  • What do your rates include? It’s common for people to include some email/phone consults with a larger bundle, sometimes charging a ‘package’ rate for a manuscript, presentation proposal, or whatever document.
  • Will you provide me with an estimate at the start, and what happens if there’s scope creep? A reasonable person should provide an estimate clearly outlining the scope of work, what will be provided, and when. That estimate should indicate what ‘scope creep’ means. It should also affirm that work beyond scope creep will not be undertaken without a conversation, which will include an updated estimate, so you can decide whether to move forward. (e.g. If you send me a document for a read, I return it to you, and you ask me for some specific suggestions to address concrete issues, that’s part of the scope of work. If you want to work on extensive character redevelopment, it’s time to stop and reassess.)
  • What is your working style? Everyone works and communicates differently. It can help to know that ahead of time — for example, I tend to leave pretty terse margin notes, and it’s not because I dislike something or am impatient, but because I am efficient. If editorial notes like ‘Reinforces trope discussed above’ are going to be offputting, you might find it difficult to work with me. If you want a lot of phone time, I may not be a great choice for you. If you have specific questions about working or communication style, ask them!
  • What’s your experience? While I am not a ‘papers please’ person, it is reasonable to confirm that a sensitivity reader is actually suited to a work. If you’re writing about a cheerleader using a wheelchair for mobility, for instance, I’m a bad choice, because I am not a wheelchair user, and I would refer you to someone who is.
  • What happens if we aren’t working well together or I am not satisfied? This is a thing that happens. Sometimes it’s not anyone’s fault, or you two have very different styles, or you’re not collaborating well with your reader, or your reader is a jerk! Many sensitivity readers ask for a deposit on their work, for a variety of reasons, and generally, you will forfeit that deposit if you decide to terminate the relationship after some or all of the work has been done. This is because the work has been done, and since you can’t return the hours and energy expended, they can’t return your money. Some people may invoice you for work performed up to the point of terminating your relationship. Make sure you know your reader’s policy before you start. If someone didn’t deliver as promised, you may consider bringing in a mediator or raising a dispute with your payments processor (e.g. someone takes your $200 deposit and never talks to you again, or accepts your deposit and returns a half-assed response with three comments on an 80,000 word document).
  • Can you point me to other clients who can act as references? Some people list references on their sites, and in other cases, they are available by request. Not having references isn’t necessarily a red flag warning, but it’s not always a great sign, either.
  • What is your confidentiality policy? A responsible reader should make sure your documents and communications are sufficiently secure while handling them, and should not share their contents without your explicit consent (e.g. ‘I have a question about the passage in chapter 13, do you mind if I send it over to another reader for her opinion?’). You may also prefer that people not disclose that they are working with you at all, for whatever reason (many of my clients do feel this way, and this is why some people don’t have a ton of references).
  • Do you have questions for me? I always appreciate it when clients ask this, because it gives me a chance to ask questions about their expectations, why they’re working on a given project, and how they are working on it.

Like I say, everyone works differently and has different suggestions and advice. Communication is really the bottom line here, as is respectful communication — take the time to thank your sensitivity reader in communications. Make sure you spell her name right (yes really I do have to remind people of this). Be aware of your reader’s time zone, stated schedule, and boundaries. Think about how you like to be treated when you are performing both intellectual and emotional labour, because that is what sensitivity readers are doing.

Looking for a sensitivity reader? This is a great database to start with.

Image: Notes, Rebecca, Flickr