Sense and Sensitivity

By Jeanna Louise Skinner, reprinted with the kind permission of The Pink Heart Society

Sensitivity reading is fast becoming ever-more important in the rapidly changing publishing industry. If you’ve not heard of sensitivity reading, here’s a quick précis:

A sensitivity reader is someone who is hired to read and assess a manuscript with a specific issue of representation in mind, one that they have personal experience of. If the author isn’t from that marginalised group, or doesn’t have direct experience of the topic they’re writing about, it’s good practice to hire a sensitivity reader to assess that book.

Here at #UKRomChat we’ve been very vocal about our support for campaigns such as #ownvoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks and we champion ALL writers of romance. Just today, I read this hugely important and timely article in The Irish Times by author Kit de Waal in The Irish Times about the importance of writing with care and sensitivity and avoiding cultural appropriation.

We asked author and sensitivity reader, Elisa Winther @winthernovels to be our chat guest back in January, and we were so happy when she agreed. You can catch up with her chat here.

How can a sensitivity reader help you?
A sensitivity reader is worth investing in because they can help eliminate stereotypes, bias, potentially harmful content, and false information or inaccuracy.

Elisa says, “In short, sensitivity readers help detect red flags in terms of how marginalized characters are portrayed in your fiction, and how to fix problematic representation and story concepts.

Harmful representation adds to existing stigma, spreads painful tropes and stereotypes like truths, and denies marginalized people the many benefits of being well-represented in media.”

The reader’s role is to improve the book by guiding it towards better representation, educating the author/publisher along the way. Diversity in books is incredibly important, but it’s equally important that, in the push for better representation, books portray whatever they’re writing about accurately and without perpetuating stereotypes.

Aside from improving a book, sensitivity readers are vital in starting conversations between marginalised groups and people from outside of that sphere or demographic.

It’s also important to remember that no two people will have the same viewpoint, so an author writing with their own experience in mind might still look for a sensitivity reader to ensure non-harmful representation.

What does a sensitivity reader cover?

A sensitivity reader might specialise in one area, or multiple subjects, depending on their identity and experiences. Sensitivity reading can cover a broad range of topics, which can include (but are not limited to) ethnicity and race, sexuality, gender, physical and mental health, disability, and class.

“I’ve been consulting for 5 years on writing black and biracial characters,” says Elisa, “throughout the years expanding my consulting to include asexual, pi/pan, genderquestioning, agender, autistic, depression, and AD(H)D.”

How to make sensitivity reading work for you.

It’s important to do your due diligence and research your sensitivity reader thoroughly to ensure you get the right person for your work. Sensitivity readings vary widely in the amount of feedback given for a number of reasons such as the level of critique you require and budget.

A sensitivity reader won’t demand you make changes to your manuscript – their role is to offer advice and guidance. Ultimately, it is the author and/or publishers who make the final decisions. If you’re thinking about hiring a sensitivity reader, or your publisher is hiring one, it’s important you go into the process with an open mind, that you’re willing to listen and take on board what your reader says. They can’t be held accountable if you fail to listen, or if you have a combative attitude.

Summing up on sensitivity reading.
Back in January, we asked Elisa what her advice would be for a writer who perhaps was thinking that they should avoid adding more diversity to their writing, for fear of getting it wrong. This is what she had to say:

“Very good and I feel important question. It’s okay to feel scared, but don’t let that hold you back. I’d say, hire a sensitivity reader, ask the right beta-readers, read #ownvoices books, do your research, and I know it’s scary to make mistakes, but we all do. And that’s okay. As long as we don’t write stories that aren’t ours to tell, and we can own up to our mistakes, learn, so we have a better go at it the next time.”

Regulars to #UKRomChat will know that we always end with our Magical Question Number 10:

“What is the best thing about writing HEAs/romance?”

We look forward to this question most, as it always throws up a wonderfully diverse range of answers from our guests, and Elisa’s reply was no exception.

“I love HEA/HFN because they are awesome in general! But also because marginalized characters are often excluded from having those. We get tragedy and inspiration porn. We are villains, the best friend, the sidekick. We deserve happy stories and love too.”

To this I say extremely loudly for those at the back and with absolutely zero sensitivity:

Hear bloody hear!

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