I get a lot of questions on Sensitivity Reads, and even though I think I have a pretty good write up here it seems like maybe, nah. So I’m going to go into more detail about when I think you should have a Sensitivity Read done.
This is one Hundred Percent Justina Ireland’s Best Practices which means this blog post and six dollars can get you a grande latte at Starbucks.
AKA, it’s my opinion and other people may have different opinions that I literally don’t care about because otherwise I wouldn’t have spent the time typing this up.
Here we go.
When to do a Sensitivity Read depends on the book. A Sensitivity Reader is basically looking for aggressions against readers from marginalized backgrounds or cultural out groups (those groups not centered in society). There are three ways that writers writing outside of their cultural experience perpetuate these:
1. Direct microaggressions. These exist in stories that rely on stereotypes at a foundational level. These stories begin from a flawed idea or a stereotypical perception of a societal out group (again, this is any marginalized group not centered within society) and yet never quite dismantle the trope or move past the surface level ideas of the existence of those in the out groups. This would include ideas of savage cultures and white savior narratives. This also includes disability porn, where the disabled person’s story/struggle serves to lift up or better the main character. Stories where cultural differences are central to a fantastical world would most likely fall into this category as well due to the worldbuilding involved.
2. Incidental microaggressions. In these stories ideas of differing social groups and their interactions are at the heart of the plot but the author fails to deconstruct those ideas in a new and enlightening way. This would be most contemporary “culture clash” stories. Usually anything described as Romeo and Juliet would fall into this category, unless it’s a fantasy or sci-fi, because worldbuilding.
3. Collateral microaggressions. These exist within stories where the plight of out groups are not center to the plot, yet their depiction adheres to popular misconceptions and those stereotypes and shallow characterizations are never deconstructed on the page.
So, when to hire a Sensitivity Reader? Well, for numbers one and two, as early as possible. If any of the story’s developmental points or worldbuilding relies on cultural markers then those need to be addressed as early as possible, because correcting inaccuracies will require more work and therefore should be done earlier in the process. Either immediately after acquisition if being done at a publishing house or after the first round of structural edits. Again, early detection is best.
For a number three, where minor characters are members of cultural out groups, the reading can be done later in the process. Because the tweaks will be less intense. Before or during copy edits is a good time to get this done. Again, these are very minor issues with word choice and secondary characters, not main characters.
But the reality is it’s better for a Sensitivity Reader to be hired later than never. Everything is fixable until publication (and even after, things can be corrected for reprints) so it’s better to understand problems before the book hits publication. Are some things unfix-able? Yes, of course. And those unfix-able things will still be obvious after publication.
But the idea is to get a chance to fix those issues, not to just pretend they don’t exist.