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  1. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    New concept to me: sensitivity reader

    Discussion in 'Debate Room' started by jannert, Dec 28, 2018.

    I was just reading an edition of the Canadian writers' publication Geist, and fell across a letter in the help for writers section of the magazine that deals with the concept of 'sensitivity readers.'

    Apparently, sensitivity readers are people hired by agents or publishers who read through a manuscript that deals with a particular social issue. This topic can be anything from sexual abuse, bullying, racism, physical and/or mental conditions, gender issues etc. This sensitivity reader has editing experience, but also has personal experience dealing with whatever issue has been raised in the manuscript. They can help to spot stereotypes and can correct factual errors that the author might not have meant to make. Because of their editing experience, they can suggest ways to improve the MS so it's more accurate.

    This is an interesting idea to me. Are people actually doing this? Do you think it's a good idea? Would it be something to consider doing yourself, if you have personal experience with any of these issues? It might be a way to earn a bit of money and also help a cause that's personal to you.

    The article mentions a database of these readers, but then also says the database is out of date! Hmmm....

    Is this something our forum could consider providing for its members, I wonder? There are a lot of threads on the forum that indicate an interest in the topic. There are many writer-members here who worry that what they write might not be accurate in depicting certain social conditions and issues. Hmmm....
     
  2. Matt E

    Matt E Ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8 Supporter Contributor

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    I remember Mary Robinette Kowal talking about hiring one of these on the Writing Excuses podcast. She's made manuscript edits based on the feedback and also dumped a project that the sensitivity reader warned had too many issues to work as intended.

    A sensitivity reader is something that I might find for my current project, though I'd probably prefer someone I know rather than paying for the service. Seems like a wise choice for any fiction that touches on weighty topics.
     
  3. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Interesting yes, but I see a whole lot of concerns.

    'Sensitivity' implies editors that don't want your work to offend. Would such a person want to edit something like To Kill a Mockingbird?

    If instead the title was something more in tune with how you described it, editing for accuracy of a particular ethnicity, I might be less suspicious.
     
  4. Matt E

    Matt E Ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8 Supporter Contributor

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    In general I think the goal is to edit out stereotypes, and make sure that characters are realistic to their cultures. I guess it might depend on the sensitivity reader, but in tackling issues like those in To Kill a Mocking Bird, it would be offensive to sugar coat it to be honest. Some things in history really did happen, and were terrible. We shouldn't pretend that they didn't.
     
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  5. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    And by that same token writing historical fiction might be very offensive to certain social justice warriors., suggesting we write what the ideal is and not the real.

    It really depends on who the editors are and what those person's goals are reviewing one's work.
     
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  6. Matt E

    Matt E Ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8 Supporter Contributor

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    I guess I don't know those communities well enough to know how they'd react. That's one reason for a professional reader, which I'd definitely look for if I was writing historical fiction in that period. There are a lot of tricky issues, and a writer would have to be really careful when navigating them I think. Someone will always be offended I suppose, even with stuff that doesn't brush on sensitive topics. But I'd rather get an idea of how readers react earlier than later when dealing with something that controversial.
     
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  7. Foxxx

    Foxxx The Debonair Contributor

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    As somebody who offends on purpose, no. I wouldn't be interested.

    But that's not everyone's cup of tea. Some like sugar, cream, honey, and all sorts of shit in theirs.

    P.S. As a caveat, I could see some potential in knowing whether or not I succeeded at being offensive by hiring a sensitivity reader.
     
  8. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    I've used sensitivity readers a couple of times. My first novel had a Muslim man as a side character, and a female protagonist. I needed help getting his scene involving religion right, and her voice right. I also had a half Japanese / half white main character, and I always describe skin color, hair, and so on, so I looked for people to tell me how they felt about their descriptions. My last novel had three POV characters, including two women in a romantic relationship, so I had sensitivity readers tell me about LGBT issues and female voice. That book had other potential issues related to the racist trope of having a black man as a mentor character, so I talked it over with people to see if I was handling it right.

    "Sensitivity reader" makes it sound shitty. I like the term "accuracy reader." The idea is that you want people that might pick up your book to feel respected and immersed or else they will check out. The things that make people feel disrespected, or break the verisimilitude, are not immediately obvious and not necessarily even shared by most people in any specific demographic.

    If I write something, I'd really like the conversation be about the story or the writing, rather than if a micro-aggression / cliche' I mindlessly wrote belies some deeper unconscious bias. Since I can't see or know about my own unconscious bias because of the very nature of unconscious bias, it is worth asking someone how they feel about what I wrote.

    Mostly, I just keep my ears open, watch my Lindsey Ellis and Contrapoints on YouTube, follow BookTubers on Twitter, and read my Huffington Post articles so I know what to look for.

    Edit: interestingly, the time I didn’t use any is in my web serial (linked below) which is just about the only stuff I made public. A North African guy named Yidir and his two kids show up about halfway through. It seemed to turn out alright.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2018
  9. Hammer

    Hammer Senior Member

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    One of my betas always reads for sensitivity. She is a deputy head teacher and undergoes regular training around a number of issues; she deals with all manner of problems on a daily basis. My finished works so far are light-hearted and don't deal with serious social issues but, for example, the second book involves a group of slightly plump lady wizards with a fondness for cake... I needed to know that the humour falls on the right side of "the line"
     
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  10. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, I did immediately think snowflake! when I saw that moniker. A title for that kind of reader might be better chosen.

    But what about the concept?

    Yes, a 'sensitivity reader' might well take a look at a book like To Kill A Mockingbird. Not to edit out any controversial 'words' or 'concepts,' but only to ensure that the writer was actually saying what she meant to say. I don't think there is anything in TKAM that a good 'sensitivity editor' would have found objectionable. And of course, a writer is free to ignore the advice anyway.

    This isn't censorship. It's simply research help.

    We create so many threads on the forum asking 'is it okay to say this or that?' There is obviously a concern among us writers about misrepresenting somebody's situation.

    If, for example, somebody is writing about a character who has Aspergers, it might be helpful to get feedback from somebody who actually has that condition themselves, and deals with it all day every day. They can say, 'yes, that's it exactly.' Or, 'no, that's not what it's like at all.'

    Or if the writer is dealing with, say, Native American characters in the modern day (but who isn't a member of that group themselves) it might be good to get feedback from Native American editors as to the accuracy of the writer's depictions. Or a writer who is writing about child abuse (but has never experienced it) to get feedback from somebody who is a fellow writer, but who HAS experienced that kind of childhood.

    I know that, personally, I would find this kind of feedback incredibly helpful.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2018
  11. Foxxx

    Foxxx The Debonair Contributor

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    But who is the sensitivity reader to say that they are an appointed speaker for their group, whether it's Aspergers, Native Americans, or Native Americans with Aspergers?

    I agree with John Callahan that what people need are accuracy readers. It's good to check and make sure you don't say something that isn't factually correct, or describe something in a way that demonstrably isn't true. But what one person finds offensive, another person may not.

    I might add that there's a legitimate question which shouldn't be skipped over: Should those people even be concerned about misrepresenting somebody's situation? Not all people with Aspergers or who are Native American have the same experience, feelings, or opinions.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2018
  12. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    The concept as you interpret it is great.
     
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  13. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    Thanks, I do want to add one thing though. There is a lot of stuff that while offensive to only a portion of a demographic, adds no value for anyone else. If you can figure out what those things are, when you write them you can say "wow, no one likes this but some people hate this, so why am I writing it?"
     
  14. Foxxx

    Foxxx The Debonair Contributor

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    True. Of course, some people have the explicit goal of offending people, which makes their audience like-minded folk. I wouldn't count me as one of those types, but I do believe in people's right to offend on principle.

    That's neither here nor there though I suppose. Likewise, people have a right to consult one of these "sensitivity readers". As long as censorship isn't occurring and as long as they don't force themselves to become a middle-man gate-keeper in any creative industry, I don't really care, and I'll reserve my right to not think highly of it.
     
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  15. Earp

    Earp Contributor Contributor

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  16. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If the author wants to write a certain kind of character from a certain kind of background, it would be nice if somebody could confirm that they are, indeed, saying what they meant to say, or are conveying the position they meant to convey. If they offend because they meant to offend, fair enough. If they offend because they didn't know any better (and will feel badly about it when it's too late to change) that's another.

    This isn't censorship. It's research. It's research about perspective, more than facts. When you research things like how transgender people might feel when they deal with family members, colleagues, potential employers and lovers, you would want input from transgender people, wouldn't you? Either before you write, during the writing, or afterwards? These aren't 'facts' you're looking for. These are perspectives.

    I have a friend who is a medical doctor (and also an editor) who agreed to read over the portion of my novel that had to do with a medical emergency in a rural part of the USA in 1886. I asked her if what I'd written was medically sound. She said it wasn't bad, but then made a few suggestions about procedure that made it better. I went away feeling that the story was more sound as a result of her input.

    I don't see any problem transferring this kind of expertise to social issues. I really don't. Of course one person's experiences aren't necessarily going to cover all the issues or even represent a majority of other people who have experienced the same things. But one experience is bound to be more accurate than no experience at all. At least one experience offers a real perspective, rather than just an imagined perspective.

    This is to benefit the author, by the way. The author is free to reject any advice, and reap the consequences—good or bad.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2018
  17. Azuresun

    Azuresun Senior Member

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    There was a thread I read elsewhere years ago, where someone asked if Willow's coming-out scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer rang true. One poster went on an extended rant about how it was offensively handled and pandering.....then another poster said "Actually, that was pretty much how I came out to my parents."
     
  18. matwoolf

    matwoolf Contributor Contributor

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    A good idea for the stupid writers, and for the white pig males to have their stupid rocket ship stories go before the central committee. Stop their grunting and tie the assholes to a chair, and a priestess man enters the mausoleum, narrates those foul, dirty chapters aloud, and deletes the wrong-think paragraphs. Together we inserts the goodness of our good and the proper fantasy, and I won't share specifics of my vision. But certainly we do beat those writers to pulp until they relent and Crime Lord Mars Man has a new unicorn, Venus, a lady on the cover and they are self-published. They'll fucking bite off their own dicks on a book-signing tour, a shaming before the New World Order. Victory is within our grasp.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2018
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  19. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, dear. I didn't realise this topic had appeared on the forum before. Apologies. As I said, it's new to me. Urkkkk. Anyway, I hope my thread doesn't end up starting WW3. I just think sensitivity feedback is a good idea in some respects. Although I would NEVER want it to be censorship, applied against an author's will. As a research tool or second opinion yes. As censorship, no.
     
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  20. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Good to hear perspectives, if both came from people who had experienced that sort of thing? I know I would want to, if I was writing that from an outsider's point of view.
     
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2018
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  21. Carriage Return

    Carriage Return Member

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  22. Carriage Return

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  23. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    Basically, it looks like @jannert got it exactly right: sensitivity readers are experts in a field that a writer wishes to research.

    Writers who portray periods in history that they haven't lived are famous for spending thousands of hours over the course of several years studying everything they can find about the different sides of that period in history, everything they can find about how popular conceptions about that period might be incorrect.

    Writers who portray cultures in the world that they haven't lived are famous for spending thousands of hours over the course of several years studying everything they can find about the different sides of that culture in the world, everything they can find about how popular conceptions about that culture might be incorrect.

    Writers will spend thousands of hours over several years studying automotive engineering, aeronautical engineering, naval engineering, architecture, sailing, swordsmanship, archery, firearms, artillery, police investigation, private investigation, crime scene analysis, organized crime, street crime, the chemistry of cooking drugs, wilderness survival, hunting, botany, zoology, oceanography, meteorology...

    And yet, when
    • cis/straight authors wish to research the range of life experiences lived by queer people in a cis/straight-dominated culture
    • white authors wish to research the range of life experiences lived by non-white people in a white-dominated culture
    • Christian authors wish to research the range of life experiences lived by non-Christian people in a Christian-dominated culture
    • male authors wish to research the life experiences lived by female and non-binary people in a male-dominated culture
    • ...
    Suddenly a large and vocal proportion of writers (if not necessarily a majority) get extremely offended: "why would you want your work to be censored by people who get extremely offended for no reason? You should write what you want to write, not what a whiny SJW cry-baby would force you to write!"

    Weird.

    Edit:
    That's literally 100% precisely what a sensitivity reader is.
     
  24. Carriage Return

    Carriage Return Member

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  25. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    And where exactly are you getting this?
     
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