What Are Sensitivity Readers and Do You Need Them?

In recent years, diversity has become a hot topic in fiction. The lack of diversity in literature up until now means readers are very in-tune with representation in books. We see diversity everywhere in the real world—we want to see that diversity represented in our entertainment and storytelling, as well.

This means you should take care to include characters of diverse backgrounds, races, and cultures within your story. However, it can be tough to write outside of your own experiences without falling into stereotypes or troubling tropes. This is where sensitivity readers, also known as diversity readers, come into play.

What Are Sensitivity Readers?

If you’ve started moving into the editing or publishing phases of writing your book, you’re probably familiar with beta readers. Just like technology companies beta test their software to catch any bugs or problems before releasing it to the public, you should find beta readers to look over your manuscript to spot potential problems or negative reactions before you publish.

Sensitivity readers are a type of beta reader that read a manuscript expressly to call out any cultural, racial, diversity or representation issues as well as any problematic stereotypes, biases, and language throughout your book.

Sensitivity readers, like beta readers, are not editors. You should not send them your half-finished manuscript and expect them to fill in the blanks or add diversity into your story. Rather, sensitivity readers act more as casual readers who will share with you what they like and dislike about your story from the perspective of accurately representing various diversities.

Do You Need Sensitivity Readers?

When it comes to writing about difficult, sensitive topics, it’s easy to shy away and not include beta readers at all. However, as mentioned before, diversity and representation are extremely important to readers today—which means you should take care to both include diversity readers and represent them well.

There’s a wide variety of subjects that diversity and sensitivity readers can help you with, including:

- Drugs, alcohol, and other types of substance abuse

- Physical illness and disabilities

- Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, autism, and schizophrenia

- Gender issues

- Ethnicity, race, and culture

- Domestic violence, bullying, and other types of physical abuse


- Religion

It’s also imperative to note that although you should include various diversities within your story, you should not try to speak from the perspective of people living with these diversities if you have not personally experienced them. For example, if you are not personally gay, you can certainly include gay characters in your book, but you should not try to write about what it’s like to be gay.

This can be a difficult distinction to make, but it’s an important one. Sensitivity readers will be able to help you ensure that you’re not crossing into difficult or potentially troubling territories.

Working with Sensitivity Readers

Remember: diversity or sensitivity readers are not editors. You should not send them an unfinished manuscript and expect them to make changes. Rather, you should send them your finished manuscript and in turn, they will provide you with honest notes from a reader’s perspective about how you can tell a better, more accurate story.

When looking for sensitivity readers, take care to find a couple that can speak directly to the topic(s) of diversity within your book. If one of your characters is Buddhist, try to find a sensitivity reader that understands the intricacies of Buddhism, and so forth. The more topics of diversity within your book, the more sensitivity readers you will likely need.

Just like with any beta reader or freelance editor, you have the final say on any changes made to your story. You can choose whether or not to take a sensitivity reader’s advice. But if you don’t have a strong reason to disagree with their comments, you should trust their knowledge, expertise, and insight and take their critiques to heart. Even if you feel their comments aren’t relevant or they don’t quite understand your story, their thoughts may open your eyes to aspects of the story you didn’t see before.

To learn more about getting feedback and many other topics that can help you write, edit, publish, and market your book, make sure to check out the Author Learning Center’s expansive library of exclusive articles, author interviews, and webinars.

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