The push for more diversity in publishing can sometimes be at odds with the “write what you know” dictum. Writers who want to make their books more diverse want to get it right, which is why authors looking to self-publish might consider engaging sensitivity readers.

Publishers are hiring “sensitivity readers” to review books and flag potentially offensive content. Authors like Veronica Roth and J. K. Rowling have been criticized by groups who were concerned over the authors’ portrayals of minorities. Keira Drake had the publication of The Continent delayed due to online reviewers declaring her book as “racist trash.” Those reviews caused the publisher to hire two sensitivity readers, and Drake spent six months rewriting the book, which is due out this month. These incidents have sparked a proactive approach by publishers to head off potential issues in the future.

One organization, Writing in the Margins, has assembled a database to make it easy for authors and publishers to contact sensitivity readers. As posted on the Writing in the Margins website, “Sensitivity readers can help you identify problematic language and internalized bias on the page when writing outside of your experiences. This is not a guarantee that others will not have issues with your work. But it is a way to attempt to catch and correct high level issues prior to submission or publication.” The database includes readers’ qualifications, areas of expertise, contact info, and fees. Prices seem to run about $250 for a full-length novel, though some are priced according to word count. The database is free to view, and it currently contains 199 readers.

Of course, in today’s hyper-reactionary climate, anything having to do with people getting upset over something makes other people upset, so this whole notion of sensitivity readers has sparked a heated debate.

It’s one thing for authors to seek out sensitivity readers of their own volition. After all, there is a huge (and justifiable) push for more diversity in publishing, and that can sometimes be at odds with the old dictum, “write what you know.” Authors who want to make their books more diverse want to get it right.

Children’s book author Kate Messner is quoted in a recent Chicago Tribune article. She often writes about poverty, abuse, and race, and she regularly hires sensitivity readers. Messner said, “I wouldn’t dream of sending those books out into the world without getting help to make sure I’m representing those issues in a way that’s realistic and sensitive.”

For that very reason, authors looking to self-publish may want to hire a sensitivity reader if they are writing about people and issues that are outside their own experience.

But the notion of publishers running all their books by sensitivity readers as a matter of company policy has some crying censorship. Many of the books that are today considered to be masterpieces shocked and disturbed readers when first published. Some, like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continue to spark discussion and healthy debate precisely because of their objectionable content. People are concerned that by preemptively removing such content they are neutering literature, producing meek books.

Kafka would probably not have been a fan. He once famously wrote:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? … we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Then again, there’s a difference between books that are intentionally challenging and/or offensive and those which were written by authors who may have been unaware they were causing offense.

Sensitivity readers aren’t new, and they aren’t necessarily limited to publishing. Scholastic hired readers for just this purpose over 30 years ago for their “Baby-Sitters Club” series, which often dealt with sensitive issues. Sesame Street regularly employed psychologists to go over content to make sure they were addressing troubling issues in proper fashion. Hollywood has used test screeners for decades. In Hollywood’s case, test screenings are used primarily to predict how successful a movie will be, however, studios have changed things their test audiences didn’t like, for various reasons, including material audiences found questionable. Then again, what test screen audiences find objectionable doesn’t necessarily jibe with what the rest of the world thinks, and stories abound of movies being altered for the worse due to poor test scores.

Another issue is the notion that sensitivity readers are exacerbating the problems of cultural appropriation. “On the one hand,” writes Everdeen Mason in the Tribune article, “they help a writer create the experience of a marginalized group more authentically. On the other, they legitimize the mimicking of marginalized voices by non-marginalized writers. Why not just publish more books by black people, Latinos, Native Americans and others?”

Of course we want more books by diverse writers, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of accidentally writing offensive material. After all, shouldn’t a Latina writer also be able to include characters who are different from her?

All you authors looking to self-publish: the choice is yours. You can choose to hire a sensitivity reader or not. Should you hire one, you can even choose to disregard his or her advice. But if you’re seeking a more traditional publishing experience, be aware that your book may go through this extra step along the way.

What are your thoughts on all of this?

 

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Scott McCormick

About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick has written 16 posts in this blog.

Scott McCormick is the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com. Photo credit Karen Cooley.

118 thoughts on “Publishers Are Hiring Sensitivity Readers … Should You?

  1. S. Willow says:

    And this is why I stopped writing for the overly sensitive, hyper-reactionary, immature millennial market. No, I do NOT think we should be running our work pass ‘sensitivity’ readers. Books will end up like movies, boring, safe and all the same because no one will dare write anything that might offend someone somewhere. I pity the writers who have committed themselves to writing for this demographic because it will be like painting by numbers or in this case writing by safe, tidy little numbers that no one can squawk about.

    As a writer I do not think you should allow a loud, shouty minority of social media bullies (because that is what these people are) to dictate the stories you write. By asking their permission to green light your book is simply Orwellian.

    1. Lizzy says:

      Just aother ridiculous idea from the most ridiculous of the ridiculous — liberals.

      1. J. J. Lamb says:

        This is not a political question.

    2. Chris says:

      HEAR HEAR!… Is nothing sacred?… Isn’t even literature safe from the nanny interference of the PC brigade?

      Who are we supposed to be saving from our horrible offensive and nasty little words?… When I was a kid, I had the old adage drummed into me:

      “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”

      OK… as a young smartarse, I questioned the truth of this oft repeated saying.

      “But words can be hurtful.” I said, smugly… and I got an answer.

      “Only if you let them, son.”

      Isn’t it the place… even the duty… of writers to challenge and occasionally offend? If you don’t like my characters, and how they speak, put the book down and read something else.

      One of my regular characters… an old time copper, who missed the point of all the diversity courses his superiors sent him on, is often less than PC in his language, but he’s one of the good guys. It’s a part of the man’s character, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna change him, because my readers like him, and I like writing him.

      I’ve got other regular characters from the gay community, and various ethnic groups, on both sides of the ‘good guy, bad guy’ spectrum in my novels… likewise, I don’t mind risking offending various religious groups in my stories. That’s what writing for grown ups is about.

      All this talk of ‘diversity readers’ is the thin end of the wedge… Why am I not surprised that it originated in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. Now that’s what I call irony.

    3. Randy says:

      It’s impossible not to offend someone these days with an increasingly oversensitive population. If someone gets offended by a story, then that person should not read anything further by that author, and end it there. This coddling needs to end. Otherwise, we potentially miss out on what many others might consider a great piece of fiction (or non-fiction), and we go down a horrible road. Call it “sensitivity” if you want but that’s just a fluffy word for censorship.

      1. Teri says:

        Everyone has already said it–which is the same for much of the writing we have today. It’s a pretty word–with too many syllables by the way–for censorship. Harper Lee, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain–hundreds of giants in literature–would not be published today because of a culture whose attention span is that of a microwave oven. Using the truth in your own words is a double edged sword–every writer knows that. It comes back on us, too. But the risk is worth it. Sensitivity is a personal matter. I wrote a Civil War piece, and because I have bi-racial grandchildren I flinched at using the word ‘nigger’ because of them. It is a harsh word now, albeit some in the black community call themselves that very thing. So… I didn’t use ‘nigger’ but, instead, the southern pronunciation of ‘neggrah’. (I first heard it pronounced that way in Texas, 1972. The elderly lady who said it was born in the 1890s and felt ‘neggrah was nicer than ‘nigger’. Well… I agree. My readers got the right idea and flavor of the term, without the harsh insult in it. At least to me Censorship and sensitivity begins with me, the author. Not some stranger who brings his own ideas and roadblocks to my book. I am where anything I write begins. And ends.

    4. Judy Mortkowitz says:

      I agree with you completely Time for the whinny kids to grow up–even if they are 40 years old.

      1. Robert Marvin says:

        You are so right. Can you imagine the sensitivity police’s reaction if If Mark Twain tried to get Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or
        The Adventures of Tom Sawyer published today. The idea that only certain people can possibly write about certain other people is to deny existence of human empathy and understanding.

    5. Phil says:

      The people who are complaining are not all bullies – in fact, some of them have been the victims of bullies and believe that people who have not suffered the same abuse cannot understand it. I don’t agree, but I can understand their feelings. If I can imagine something painful in a way that causes me pain, then I am closer to being able to bring others to the same understanding.
      Do we need sensitivity readers? Only if we don’t trust ourselves (and those we share our unborn books with) to be sensitive – which may mean we aren’t writing as well as we can.

      1. Marianne Edwards says:

        Brilliant! Finally a comment that shows some compassion… and isn’t stamping its entitled little feet!

    6. Thanks. S. Willow. I couldn’t have said it better.

    7. Melania says:

      Well, reading this article made me realized that despite all the craziness happening in our world today, our world is changing in a better direction — whether you like it or not. I actually appreciate this article because we all have bias regardless of our backgrounds. And those biases are reflected in our writing.

      Also, please know that this is not about millennials or any groups.Let’s be smarter than that. Now, everything should be blamed on millennials? And to defend this group, it’s not like they inherited a dream world from their old folks like you. Instead, they now live in a world filled with poverty (low employment), wars (Afghanistan), domestic terrorism. Should I continue? My point is let’s stop this type of unintelligent comments online. They don’t help.

      Now, this article is about making our world a better place. If this approach is no use to you, good for you but some people actually care to live in a more decent world and they actually want to become better human beings.

      1. Sebsgram says:

        Millennials , overall, have not learned to cope with the real world. They have been told that everyone gets a trophy and they are perfect. (I raised 3, and though they weren’t raised to believe that they didn’t have to struggle, many of their friends were.) My generation grew up with wars (World War II, Korean, Viet Nam,) domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, rape, robbery, loss of children, jobs, marriages, the birth of severely disabled children, and soul-crushing poverty. None of these things is new to life. We learned to do what we had to do. No one I knew, or know today, thinks we were/are entitled or privileged – quite the contrary. Privilege is a myth.

        You might guess I don’t believe sensitivity readers are necessary. Most people can move forward in reading a book, knowing that the author didn’t mean to offend. We can’t allow an overly sensitive population to dictate what we can and can’t write about. We all suffer at times, but some of us have learned to cope better than others.

      2. You forget, that more often than ot the truth offends those, who desperately try denying it. As to having inherited a perfect world when and where?
        I inherited a world with bombed out streets, old Nazis(supposedly reformed) reinstated as judges and police by the Americans and Brits and an American puppet as chancellor, Adenauer, who in my brth year of 1953 refused three offers by Stalin to reunite Germany under the condition of neutrality.
        Only after Adenauers (remote controlled) refusal the wall was built. A perfect world? where are you living?
        And don’t forget that the truth doesn’t give a flying f*** if it is politically correct or not.

    8. Sarah says:

      I don’t think “the overly sensitive, hyper-reactionary, immature millennial market” is the problem. I think the problem is a culture of social shaming online. I would even say the far left has gotten out of hand. But it’s not an entire generation of people. That’s not fair to the vast majority of pretty normal millennials who just appreciate good reads. We’re not all screaming about political correctness.

      As far as sensitivity readers go, I could see why an individual might want to hire one, but I don’t think it should be forced by publishers. That’s taking it a bit far.

      Anyway, some perspective from a pretty average adult who happens to be a millennial.

    9. phil hawkins says:

      Ditto. Well put.

    10. Jane says:

      Preach it, Bro’…

    11. Sensitivity readers? You’ve got to be kidding. That is censoring of your opinion and writing. It’s time for these readers to suck it up and read things they might not agree with and learn from the experience. Reading isn’t always comfortable if the book is speaking to an issue. Life happens and you need to learn to deal with it. As one other person said, I don’t write to the hypersensitive Millennials and liberals who can’t see how differences are good.

      Unlike them, I’ve lived life and learned how life isn’t pretty and doesn’t follow any political correctness. When you have lived a ‘gritty’ life, you can see the beauty along with the trash which comes from being in the middle of ‘crap’. My bottom line is, get over it and learn what real life is about and I’ll tell your right now, it isn’t being hypersensitive to where you take all the controversy out of life to the point where it’s bland and and not worth living.

      Yes, some subjects need to be treated with compassion (like rape, bullying, abuse, neglect) but as to making an author write to fit what these people see as proper, forget it. That is taking away the author’s ability to write a book which tells the story from a different point of view whether you agree with that view or not. Sometimes the words are needed to show how much it hurts and the effects on the person. I’ve already had someone tell me I needed to change how I wrote about one subject. What I told them was I had been there and each person deals with situations differently, so learn from how this person is dealing with it which is different from how you see they should be dealing with it.

      The bottom line, I don’t take to the censoring of my books to fit someone else’s idea of what it should be, and that is what this is all about. Censoring by those who don’t agree with you is wrong in every shape and form. If they don’t like what you wrote, they don’t need to read any more of your books which is the only proper way to censor a book simply because others may love the book.

    12. Bill says:

      “Sensitivity Readers” is nothing but repugnant censorship and I for one will never, ever do it as an author. If an author writes something that offends someone, here’s a hint – don’t read it! I don’t recall hearing about the book-police forcing people at gun-point to read books they find offensive. This is a step too far…

    13. My fellow writers, Rising Tide Writers on Cape Cod help me develop my genre as an Irish story teller. My platform is not just people whose ancestors who came from Ireland, it also includes readers who tell me that they are captivated by how I tell the story.

      It took me sixteen years to have my book Bless me Mother accepted at the Book Expo 2018

    14. Dirk says:

      Perhaps it is time to stop scapegoating millennials and stereotyping them as “immature” and “hyper-reactionary”. You don’t wish to use a sensitivity reader? Good for you, I wouldn’t either. But it seems hyper-reactionary on your part to bash an entire generation simply based upon your perceived stereotype of millennials. Millennials are simply a result of the generations that came before them. Want to point a finger? Point it at an overly emotional boomer generation more obsessed with happy endings, participation awards, and patriotic displays than action and progress (I can stereotype too and it is at least as valid as your view of millennials).

      Most millennials are just as hard working and intelligent as the generations that came before them. Unfortunately we have left many messes that will fall to them to clean up. Maybe their fear of what the future holds, as a result of our actions, has led to a perception of them as hyper-reactionary.

      Rather than a millennial problem I suspect that the problem is that we live in the internet age. And just a few extremists that yell loud and often can paint an entire generation with a false stereotype. In a time when anybody can say anything without any real consequence we have more talk without any substance than ever before. (This post included!)

    15. J. J. Lamb says:

      You are so right.

    16. As someone who has been helping people write books for about 10 years, I’ve seen how easy it is for people to unconsciously undermine their intentions for the book, especially when they are writing on a topic (I work on mostly non-fiction memoir) that is important to them because of some sort of trauma they have suffered and overcome. Even when they’ve tried very hard to take responsibility for their story and feelings, there are still places that are “hot” to the reader that require more internal and writing coaching before they can get their point across without making a huge UNNECESSARY mess. We need people to understand our true intention and show us the places where we have undermined it.

      And…

      I also believe that Art — writing, theater, painting, etc. — is, by nature, intended to trigger humanity to its next level. The artists — the ones who play in the realm of chaos more often than not — help to articulate the new ideas and paradigms that need to be faced and overcome in order for us to evolve. There are NECESSARY messes that need to be made from pure intention, so that we can all see what’s been holding us back, discuss it, and make new choices. So, I’m not in favor of sensitivity reading when it is designed to censor and remove all of the potential triggers. I think the art loses something incredibly important in that process, and so does the messenger who allows it.

    17. CE Inkibitz says:

      Sensitivity readers, screw that. What a horrible idea. Literature should never bow to those easily offended, in fact it should fly in their faces with all that it is worth. Publishers have always tried to keep a lid on writers, from the beginning those in a position of control have limited the creative minds of our world. It is a very bad idea, aks Copernicus, or the victims of the crusades, those who resisted the puritans.

  2. Tessa says:

    Thanks Eileen x

  3. Man Daer says:

    This is article is informative and helpful for me. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Paul Clayton says:

    I love you… you love me… we’re a happy family. BARF!! COMING… The ‘Barney the Dinasaur-ization of Literature. Would Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, Wolfe and/or any honest writer worth his or her salt… successfully pass through the gantlet at a modern day NYC Publishing (whore) House? I doubt it. This new trend of making sure any book commercially published DOES NOT offend anyone is absurd and fascistic. Who gets to determine what is offensive? And who is hurt by it? This is an article not about writing ‘literature,’ but about writing ‘propaganda,’ regurgitating themes that the new PC bullies want repeated and propagated. This sick PC crap is why I could not find a commercial publisher for my socio-racial novel, Van Ripplewink. The subject matter was taboo, and the honesty therein potentially upsetting to modern Barney-like sensibilities.

    1. AC Grayson says:

      Paul Clayton – I couldn’t agree more. My novel, set in the American West in 1870, was sent back from my editor with a note suggesting that I change one of the antagonists from African/Spanish to white. Her reasoning was that it could be considered offensive to readers. I refused.

      1. Marianne Edwards says:

        1 in 4 cowboys were black. 1 in 4.

    2. Chris says:

      You echo my own reaction, Paul.

      I write a series of crime novels, and I don’t mind making minor alterations to keep my publisher happy, but he doesn’t get heavy about things.

      My first submission to him had queries fired back at me. The plot centred on two underaged schoolgirl prostitutes, so even before he’d read it he asked me if there were any sex scenes involving the girls. His rationale was that as Amazon are the biggest outlet, It wasn’t a great idea to get the book blocked. Apparently, they’re OK about most things, but depictions of underaged sex was a big no no. I re-wrote the scenes, to imply rather than describe, and the book was better for it. – As my series’ protagonist is a prostitute, sex scenes are inevitable… she’s been known to use sex to get her out of scrapes, or to get information… These books aren’t erotica, but they are for adult readers.

      From that small adjustment, I’ve gone to having just released the eighth book in the series, with another in the wings… but at no time did a ‘diversity reader’ get a look in. I like to think that the ethnic characters, and the gay characters… good or bad in both cases… are written sensitively. Islam gets a bit of stick in the most recent release, but I hope I’ve been balanced towards the ordinary Muslim. However, an evil bastard of a character is still an evil bastard, whatever diverse group he or she belongs to.

    3. Paul — I have to agree with you.

    4. Geleta Fenton says:

      I grew up hearing “the truth hurts” and “don’t rock the boat.” Those words easily crush a person into being “vanilla.” When, for my job, I had to go from being the Connecticut farm girl to the board room advisor on Long Island, I thought I’d be beheaded by their directness. One person said to me “We are not vanilla.” I loved him for that — for that confirming permission to tell it like you see it, to speak up, to create, spread new ideas, etc. I am an author and editor and “vanilla” does not sell. Your book has to offer something different and you have to be truthful. One reason we have Trump is because people were tired of “political correctness.” Please…give me someone who has brains and is a do-er over some a__-kicking Congressman who says “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” If you are intelligent enough of a person to write a good book, you know whether and how you will tell your truth for the result that you want.

  5. M. Sorrentino says:

    “For that very reason, authors looking to self-publish may want to hire a sensitivity reader if they are writing about people and issues that are outside their own experience.” – You know authors already have a solution to this it is called research, whether that involves reading non-fiction/historical texts about the people you intend to write about, traveling to and engaging with their community for a first-hand experience or interviewing people for first-person accounts. The same goes for social issues research the topic thoroughly.

    “write what you know.” – I’d go one step further and say “write what you want”, cause if you don’t want to read it why would anyone else?

    1. Robin Petro says:

      Sometimes it’s easier to blame others when the fact is we didn’t do a very good job writing.
      That last sentence is right on target.

  6. D.J. McCoy says:

    Maybe when the whole world holds hands and sings girl scout songs around the campfire we writers will be able to write about that. Until then it’s a tough world. If you can’t face reality maybe shouldn’t get on the bus Buttercup! If you are going to keep your story real then you have to let your characters speak for themselves even if YOU don’t agree with them. What is this world coming to?

    1. Sooti says:

      I have to agree 100%. I don’t think it’ll be too long before the only senses we are allowed to have are touch and smell, so that we don’t see or hear anything which might offend ourselves or others. I’m 62 and am sick to the back teeth of this so called political correctness. The world has gone, and still is going, MAD.

  7. Nikki Prince says:

    Some of the comments above are indeed why…this should be done. Thank you, for an informative article.

    1. Rich says:

      Do you think the comments should be submitted to a sensitivity reader?

  8. Lola says:

    Or the publishing world could step out of its comfort zone and embrace work by more diverse writers so THEY could write what they know. Probably wouldn’t need sensitivity readers then.

    1. Lucy V Hay says:

      Finally! Thank you Lola, you have nailed it. This is the REAL issue – a lack of diverse voices in the publishing market. When there is a homogenised mass of people writing, guess what happens? The same-old, same-old gets churned out! Whether we like it or not, we’re ALL products of our environment and writers are not as ‘special’ as we think we are. ALL writers, from ALL backgrounds would do well to put themselves in others’ shoes – that’s how great writing is achieved and very few writers would argue against this. So why the beef with sensitivity readers?? That’s all they literally are – help with our research!

      Here’s my experience – I’ve used sensitivity readers as part of my research many times, most recently in a book about black queer youth because I am neither of these things. Guess what happened? My sensitivity readers had AMAZING points to add which became part of my story that I could never have thought of in a million years. It was really EXCITING and yes, when my book came out, other people from this community emailed me and wrote in their reviews that the story was really authentic and they were glad I had written it. In addition, people who were not black or queer also wrote to me or reviewed the book, saying the story had made them think about issues they’d never heard of before. It’s literally a win-win!!!

      So, if people are so against using sensitivity readers, it’s usually because they’re reacting against what they THINK they are, and/or conflating them with the endless whingers of social media (who, by the way, are any age!!). Writers should try a sensitivity reader first and see where it takes their work. My day job is an editor and I have never met a writer yet who has said it’s made their writing worse, so what is there to lose?

      1. Chris says:

        What you seem to be talking about, Lucy, isn’t what I understand by the term ‘sensitivity reader’. As I see it, a sensitivity reader is on the lookout for contentious issues, and perceived slights or even insults to parts of the community. Their sole purpose is to make sure that anyone who might get upset is pandered to, and that our books are suitable for any readers, from kiddiwinks to aged strict chapelgoing maiden aunts… and are so bland and innocuous, that they aren’t worth reading by anyone.

        The people you describe are the kind of ‘experts’ or ‘useful contacts’ all writers keep in their (probably digital) little black book. You say it yourself… You use them as part of your research.

        I have friends and friends of friends in various ethnic, religious, and sexual preference communities, who I can ask to read through a piece to see if I’ve represented them accurately… but not whitewashed them, or canonised them, but also that I’ve not misdescribed their peculiarities, and their ways of life. They understand that if I’ve written a character who happens to come from their particular ethnic minority, and is, for example, someone who runs a string of brothels using trafficked girls, and who resorts to violence and extortion, he’s not going to rise off the paper as some kind of saint.

        It’s no different from when I run police procedural details past various serving officers, or even simply phone the police headquarters for info, or confirmation… They’re surprisingly helpful if you tell them you’re an author checking facts. They get fed up with reading unrealistic depictions of their own working life. Likewise contacts in the military or security services, or experts on explosives or weapons.

        These ‘experts’ or useful community members aren’t checking to see if I’ve treated one or other group with sensitivity… they know I’m only interested in accuracy. (Would you believe a book that didn’t describe door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses as god bothering nuisances annoying people and wasting their precious time?… No… neither would I.)

        In my recently published novel, ‘Disrespected’, I’m less than complimentary about certain practices within the UK’s muslim community≤ but I ran everything past muslim friends who confirmed that my details were accurate, even if it might upset some muslims to read about a (fictitious) murderer who happens to be of their faith. (Don’t worry… Christians get some stick in the book that’s with my editor at present… I’m nothing, if not balanced.)

  9. Dan Arnold says:

    IMHO we (as writers) should try to avoid accidently offending someone, but if we do, it must be because that person isn’t our audience. To say that every book should pass some sort of sensitivity test is ludicrous. It strikes me as odd that someone who is so sensitive to the possible accidental offense given by an author they cry “foul”, may be the same person who uses the most filthy and profane language in the presence of strangers.
    I have no desire to be offensive. I try to avoid it. That being said, I know someone may find something personally offensive in my writing, just as I on occasion will find things offensive to me in a book I’m reading. I’m not so sensitive I’ll be in any way harmed by that. Of course maybe my problem is insensitivity. I can handle the occasional offense, sometimes even when it is intended to offend me. I can also handle rejection if someone doesn’t like me or my writing. What ever happened to backbone and thick skin? Maybe we need a test for that.

  10. Wendy says:

    I can see the point of running a book that deliberately treads close to a sensitive issue past a reader who is experienced with that issue, e.g. asking a Jew to review a holocaust novel to see if the Judaica is correct. In that sense, it’s no different than say, putting a ceramics instruction book past an experienced ceramicist to see if it makes sense (something I’m actually planning).

    What concerns me this apparent trend to arbitrarily screen books for possible insults to whatever snowflake-minority is being the squeakiest wheel of the month. Harry Potter “portrayal of minorities”? Unless they had a contingent of highly offended house elves, I really don’t seen any portrayal of minorities TO be offended by. This is catering to gold-bricking organizations that are trying to pick fights to boost publicity for their causes.

    Yet another case of publishers CYA at the author’s expense, just like those contract clauses that let the publisher “settle out of court” over claims the author wants to fight and then give the author the bill.

  11. Wow, interesting article and perfect timing for me! I’m not sure how I feel about the sensitivity readers making money from the authors for something they are not comfortable with, understanding they want to be sure minorities and others are presented accurately and perhaps not in a negative light. But, I would certainly need to know their ‘expertise and education’ that allows them to provide this service for which they charge money, although I can see other points on both sides.

    I have a top-notch editor to make sure of the structure and development of my work who I pay for her professional and expert services. But I also have two professional law enforcement people who read my stories to catch any crime-related issues that may not be accurate even though I am just finishing a BS in Criminal Justice, and they do not charge me. I also have about 8 to 10 ‘beta’ readers, who are diverse, to catch other things and give their opinions on the story before it goes out and they do not charge either.

    But this does make me think about the two detectives who work together in my initial suspense, mystery, thriller, and the male I describe as a dark-skinned, mid-forties, good-looking male with light hazel eyes and about six-four. The woman I describe as a tall blonde, brown eyes, thirty-something female. I chose not to use labels like ‘African-American’ ‘Latina’ and ‘Caucasian’. But while working on the sequel to the book now, I have added an Asian woman as part of the story, a new character, and this article makes me question if I should label her Asian along with her physical appearance or just depend on my description of her looks and her last name. So I’m glad this was brought up actually. My thought also is that if a writer like myself is going to use diversity novels, which is something I believe in, should I also use ‘Caucasian’ for white people? That makes sense to me. What do you think?

  12. Erick says:

    Where is the “sensitivity” and “tolerance” for the writers who choose to write controversial – even offensive – material? It goes both ways.
    If someone can’t handle reading/watching something they disagree with, then put down the book, turn the channel, or click the ‘x’ at the top right corner of your web browser. Rational, mature adults can entertain ideas even if they disagree with it….no need for temper tantrums.
    For publishers to accept censorship masquerading as “tolerance”, “diversity”, “sensitivity”, etc., then this flood of self-publishing is what’s necessary to overcome the insanity. We need more self-publishing, self-editing, and self-marketing it appears.

  13. Trish says:

    When it comes to children’s books, I guess I can understand a bit of censorship. Though, what is the point of freedom of speech or the ability of having an imagination if we can’t freely express our writings as we feel they should be? As an aspiring writer I can understand that you have to be careful in what you write, because it may hurt or disturb others, but so what? We can’t cater to every individual on the planet without releasing a billion different copies tailored to a specific culture. The inventory alone would be staggering. If someone came along and tried to change my stories, it would interrupt the flow of how the story was intended to be. It would no longer be mine. What we think, what we feel and how we write it matters. Censoring a novel just because there is an unsavory character, would be like slapping duct tape on every unsavory person in the world, or even everyone as a whole because everyone has flaws that someone else might not agree with. We might as well become a mute and thoughtless society completely void of emotions. Comedians Definetly wouldn’t exist anymore, nor would politics. Every right that is taken away from us as human beings, will only lead to the end of our way of life as we know it. People need to stop being so sensitive. If it doesn’t physically harm you, why does it matter? History is history because it happened and we learned from it. Yesterday is history because it is another day. The things and experiences that happen to people should not be censored, nor should the fanciful things we like to make up. As long as Fiction and Non fiction are clearly divided, there is no reason to force someone to change the way they write.

  14. SPJOHNSON says:

    The people in the picture look like they’re enjoying themselves.

  15. There’s a difference between reading “the kind of books that wound and stab us,” in Kafka’s words, and reading books that wound and stab the other guy. I’m autistic and one of the readers in the database. I appreciate the opportunity to weigh in before books are published with distorted or inaccurate information (just as I wouldn’t want my historical fiction to go out with distorted or inaccurate information), or that advocate the exclusion and abuse of people like me. What I don’t like is that the money I earn from sensitivity reads is what funds my self-published work, because publishers would rather work with a neurotypical author writing autistic characters than accommodate someone like me.

  16. As an editor, I do point out things that readers might find objectionable when doing content edits. That doesn’t mean authors always take my advice, but a few times my clients had been pleased to have something highlighted as insensitive, and have thanked me. Once it was a racial epitaph that was not in dialogue or part of an interior monologue , so there was no reason for it (it didn’t reveal anything about the character, in other words). I think knowledge is power, no one can force you to make changes to your book, but a publisher can certainly refuse to publish it, and readers can choose not to read it.

  17. Tannera Kane says:

    I refuse to bow to the demands of social justice warriors. They create problems that don’t exist. There’s no need for authors to create characters with specific cultural backgrounds. For instance, “Hey, look at me I’m _____ (insert social category and pigeon hole term here) is inappropriate. Like real people, fictional characters have access to education, tools, and information to overcome obstacles. Readers can imagine backgrounds as the heroes move through a plot with motive and determination. Back story culture is irrelevant.

  18. Garman Lord says:

    I think it’s probably time for all wordsmiths of good conscience to gang up on the publishing community and laugh the idea of sensitivity editing out of court, in comments, reviews, by whatever means available. Personally, I write naturalistic fiction, in which stevedores talk like stevedores, college profs talk like college profs, and every gradation in between talks like its natural self, sensitivity snowflakes be damned. Art is not only more important than walling yourself off from reality, it’s more likely to have just the opposite function if it’s real. As far as I’m concerned, as a wordsmith myself, who has invested a lot of time and trouble in perfecting his craft, any thought cop who comes along and tries to tell me how to write is just begging for me to determine empirically how far I can slam my boot up his butt. So for the benefit of the Social Justice Warriors out there, let’s reiterate: At worst, the notion of sensitivity editing is bad art, always a lamentable load of puppy-poo to find ourselves constantly stepping in. At best, it’s a slippery slope. How long before I or any other writer who might write about a black person or a Native American learning to spell his name right, putting on a suit and tie and getting a white collar job starts getting ticketed for Depraved and Reckless Cultural Appropriation? Nope; time for the world’s Wordsmiths to line up and announce to the literocracy in numbers too big to ignore: This far and no farther; you shall not pass!

  19. The entire premise around “sensitivity readers” makes me cringe. I immediately thought of all the authors, comics and others who pushed hard against society’s then-taboos in order to communicate more honestly, to open us up to realities beyond our own small circles, and often at great personal cost. I savor authors who defy our pettiness, who challenge the status quo. But, if publishers are now hiring these “special” readers, it does not bode well for debuting authors trying to break in with edgier work. Too bad. We all suffer from such extreme homogenization.

  20. inez says:

    The premise of hiring readers to control your writing, to stop your imagination, to corner you to write for those who want to see only their thoughts written scares me. We are a diverse world, are minds are not one, therefore we should have the freedom to choose to write and to read books we want to. Next we’re going to start burning books like those burned by accident in 48 BC by Caesar, except this time it would be purposely carried out by those screaming appropriation, offensive topics, language and the list can go on and on. Good writers should know how to write about sensitive issues, how to portrait particular characters, or handle offensive language.
    Most importantly is to know who your readers are. Writers cannot please everyone in this world—we’re very diverse and so are books. Critics do not scare me, but nameless, faceless trolls lurking behind computers do.
    INEZ

  21. Amy Thompson says:

    Loved the reply’s because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost their minds. I’m never drinking the kook-aid

  22. P.B. Leehan says:

    Interestingly, the article notes that this has been done for years—by publishers like Scholastic (children/young adult titles) and TV’s Sesame Street. When your audience is children, it makes sense. If your audience is adult readers, even if they have the sensitivities of children, I think they’ll have to make their own choice as to whether they want to read your work.
    My only caveat would be the same as I use with my writing today—factual error. You always get experts to read for that prior to publication. That includes something that might be “culturally” incorrect. But how does one find an “expert” on “sensitivity?” What are the professional bona fides for that skill? I wouldn’t presume to offer myself as an expert, and therefore qualified, to charge for the service of being someone’s “sensitivity reader” for “my” race/gender/age/social/cultural demographic.
    If someone is that concerned about hurting someone’s—anyone’s—“feelings,” they need to take a look at why they want to write to begin with.
    If one’s goal is simply not to offend, and therefore sell as many books as they can, I suppose that’s a legitimate personal reason to be a writer. But, like the above mention of the quality of most of today’s movies, I think your audience will tire of it. I can’t recall anyone recommending a book to me because “it’s so inoffensive!”
    It’s important to note that, like the screening audiences used by Hollywood, publishers care about “offending” people because they care about making money: the fewer people offended, the larger the book sales will, potentially, be.
    It’s the age-old pull-and-tug of the purpose of art and/or scholarship vs. the cash flow generated by its creation.
    I don’t begrudge someone writing to sell a million copies and make a million dollars, but do begrudge a publisher insisting I turn my work into homogenized, inoffensive pap so it will sell a lot of copies and make them (and, yes, me) a lot of money. That’s not why I write. My bank balance proves that.

  23. Aaron K says:

    I’ve taken enough university literature courses to be used to this type of politically correct cultural Marxism, and to quickly realize it was pure nonsense. One of the things that makes a writer like Shakespeare so great, is that he didn’t mind offending various groups in society, and just wrote great literature. The same goes for comedians like George Carlin and Mel Brooks. If people are offended, let them be offended. Some people won’t be satisfied until all literature is heavily censored or self-censored. For those with special sensitivities, they can just try to avoid reading things that offend them. Also, there should be publishing companies and social media sites for weak or easily offended people.

  24. I wouldn’t expect to need a sensitivity reader for my main characters–I KNOW them inside out–I’ve spent decades with people like them. But when my main character (in a projected, so far only outlined middle grade novel) meets a Native American chief and his son, I want to be sure that it’s young Jon’s preconceived notions, not mine, that need challenging! I’m not sure about a professional sensitivity reader–I think the ideal would be interaction and discussion with several young people from that specific tribe, and I expect to start by contacting a community college which specializes in studies of their language and culture. In general, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire a sensitivity reader if a different perspective might broaden my understanding and improve my book. I don’t see this as being “PC” or “not offending anyone,” but as an opportunity to increase my own awareness and make a good story better–in some cases, it might make part of the story MORE offensive to some!

  25. Jen says:

    My take from the article was if you’ve created any characters of a race different than your own, then you are guilty of cultural misappropriation. But if you’ve only created characters of your own race, then you are guilty of not promoting racial diversity in fiction.

    So basically no matter what you do, you’re wrong. But in case you’re not sure, there are SJWs out there willing to take your hard earned money to read your fiction and tell you that you’re wrong.

  26. Michael says:

    “Then again, there’s a difference between books that are intentionally challenging and/or offensive and those which were written by authors who may have been unaware they were causing offense.”

    So it is OK if you *intend* to offend?

    The whole issue reminds me of my youth in the Eastern Europe in the 60s. I think this self-censorship (which is what it is by another name) is a dangerous path indeed.

  27. I hesitate to disagree with some of the comments as I might end up labelled as something unsavoury, so I will state my opinion instead – as a reader and a writer.

    Sensitivity seems to provoke conflict. Let’s call it ‘authenticity’. If I read an obvious error, I hesitate and want to go and check my facts. Hence, as a writer, I try to ensure that what I write is not inaccurate. Yes, I write freestyle. But I check my facts. I write police procedurals so run the ‘unknowns’ past a cop that knows. And my female detective is bisexual so I have a reader that can tell me when I’ve made an error with her. Same approach when I have a character from a minority group.

    Bring on my ‘authenticity readers’.

    1. Sebsgram says:

      Great point, and I think one that is different from the sensitivity reader. I’ve done historical content editing for a couple of publishers, but that work deals with facts and not potential offense to readers. Authenticity is vital, but then again, the SJWs might call authors out because the work is too authentic (truthful) and doesn’t fit a particular narrative.

  28. Michael A. Black says:

    All this talk about “sensitivity readers” and not wanting to offend anybody reminds me of The Ministry of Truth. I’m sure Big Brother would approve.

  29. BRENT SMITH says:

    A ‘sensitivity reader’…? What madness is this? I write what I want to write and if some people don’t like it they can go elsewhere for their entertainment. I would say to these pathetic infantilists: go away and grow up but don’t ever expect someone like me to alter his writing for the sake of a few demi-literate harridans. I detest and despise these nouveau-puritans. My message to them is simple and succinct, so they can understand it:- fuck off.

  30. Margaret Davis says:

    The First Amendment has been under attack by those in the media (print, video, and social networks) for some time now, so I’m not surprised. Orwellian? Yes. Counter-creative? Yes. Dangerous- yes. These people want a ‘perfect’ world – which will never exist in a world filled with individuals going in multitudinal directions with diverse ethics and cultures. The Mr. Rogers world is not natural to this planet. Otherwise, Bambi would not be knocking baby birds out of their nests to eat them- a fact documented by farmers who saw it happen. You may be able to write a sweet book like that— but wait! Happy little boring books like that have already been written for children, right? So is that what these people want? Pablum? Or do they even care about what the ‘others’ see in the world? This is the ultimate ME generation, isn’t it?

  31. DTA says:

    Sensitivity readers = thought police. Absolutely ludicrous and, frankly, dangerous to even condone it.

  32. While this post is informative and offers reasons and examples for hiring sensitivity readers for fiction books (I presume), my reaction to it goes like this:

    Is that not what beta readers and developmental editors are for?
    Is someone rebranding something that already exists?
    I have to wonder what other writers who are long since gone who were both prolific and controversial would have to say about the current state of affairs in the world of publishing.

    The dictum to write what you know might mean deep research is part of the writing process as well as involving people who are different from us. World views get surprizingly personal in books and not all characters are likeable, nor should they be. For me as a reader, memorable books engage, cause friction, make us stop and think, and educate me and my personal views. There are books I start and don’t finish by choice. There are books I can’t put down and recommend to everyone I meet. There are books I debate with others because they made me think hard about things not in my everyday world. I appreciate them all.

    If one’s objective is to write a best seller, I suppose there is more than one way to do so.
    1. Write authentically and with heart and be potentially surprized when your work goes viral.
    2. Write strategically and with the market in mind and make choices from that perspective.
    3. Consider the market, then write what is truly yours to write, and see what comes of it.

    And, I suspect that data science and new technologies for tracking reader sentiment make it sadly more appealing for the sake of marketing and sales. It’s a slippery slope for certain.

    I write because writing feeds my souland have been doing so since I was young. If and when my writing speaks to others, I am thankful. I suspect I will never be a strategic a writer as I might need to be–to be that big of a bestseller (if ever) and I am okay with that. As one who mentors budding writers, I sure would love to hear their reactions to this new trend of publishers…and for that reason, I appreciate this post Scott. So thanks!

  33. “To Kill A Mockingbird” has made the no-fly list in many American schools, because it uses the word “nigger” in its historical context.

    ‘Nuff said.

    PS–the world is dumb enough without our having to edit out every word, expression, or portrayal that might cause someone to think.

  34. Marilyn Carvin says:

    I want a sensitivity reader for my early California novel. It takes place just prior to the Mexican/American War. Although I’ve done tons of research, there is a lot I am missing re the everyday life of Californios living in the pueblos. I want my Irish protagonist to have some good Mexican friends. Not so much afraid of “offending”, as afraid I am missing details that would enrich it, and don’t want to put something in that a knowledgable reader would consider unlikely. We might “offend” someone from Tennessee or Missouri, as the American settler tended to be rough and uneducated, although hard-working and skilled in their own way. Although we may think of “sensitivity readers” censuring, one might also consider them resource for details that would add to “world building”.

  35. TIM SCHAEFER says:

    Just go recruit on college campuses. They’ve been brainwashed by the new censorship in the guise of “sensitivity.” Thank God Huck Finn and many of the other classics came out when they did. Doesn’t look like there will be anything like them again.

  36. Mike Abrahams says:

    I see two ‘p.c.’ issues. One is what is ‘offensive’ and the other is what is ‘inclusive’. I don’t particularly want to be dictated to by either. Although I have a lot invented words in my current piece of writing and I do wonder sometimes if they are terms of abuse is some language or other.

  37. David North says:

    I’ll look for someone with an organic perspective in an area where I am unsure of how to sound authentic: having a woman read through my female dialogue, a teen through teen dialogue, etc.,etc.

    I will not hire a political correctness czar to tell me if my novel is acceptable.

    Vote with your wallet and download preferences.

    I’m not writing transgender novels or ones from the perspective of native Serbs: they aren’t my area of knowledge or expertise and unless I consider such a character as particularly relevant to my story, I’m not committing to months of research to shoe horn them into a story.

    People wanting authentic representation should write those stories and over time the rest of us can gain knowledge from them.

  38. Christopher says:

    This is simply another trend influenced by the hyper-sensitive, easily offended, censorship-loving crowd who cannot stand to hear anyone express a view that is different from their own. The publishers are simply cowing to the forces of the day in an attempt to sell more books, regardless of whether the books will be worth reading when the censors are done with them.

  39. To each his/her/its own. Like Kafka’s quote and Paul Clayton’s comment above, I despised Barney and all that oh-so-correct, Goody-Two-Shoes, and deadly boring niceness that recent generations of kid entertainment was – and probably still is – awash in. My children very early realized for themselves that the wicked, clever, hilarious, and ultimately very fair Bugs Bunny taught them far more useful life lessons.

    Besides, depicting controversial (what some might consider shockingly icky), or trigger-warning-worthy behaviors while still succeeding in making a character not just tolerable but also understandable and deeply sympathetic is one of the requirements and the many delights of being a writer. The protagonist in my HF series committed every oh-horrors-worthy behavior imaginable, but every reader ends up both loving and admiring him.

    YMMV, but count me out.

  40. Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    This is a slippery slope to elimination of our 1st Amendment Rights, I’m sick of these crybabbies, and social justice warriors being pawns for the elites who are trying to usurp our constitutional rights and create a fascist state. This is very serious. We should not take this lightly. I will not be hiring a sensitivity reader.

  41. Lewis W. Rogers says:

    This sounds like a great idea, and I’ll be sure to try it. I’ve been writing animal fantasy for a while now, hoping to publish it at some point, but I do worry about who might get offended. My roster of characters includes:

    -a bat-winged mare with a Master’s degree in a presumed-dead branch of magic.

    -a unicorn colt who got turned into a statue for a thousand years because he was born with mind control powers.

    -an asthmatic reindeer boy who got picked on and then turned himself into a little block of muscle.

    -a weak reindeer boy who got picked on and decided to defend himself using ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’-style animated toys.

    -a reindeer girl who’s too afraid to tell boys when they’re being jerks (which, for reindeer, is pretty much all the time) because her parents are doctors in a boy-oriented hospital and she’s been raised to think ‘boys have it rough.’ Also, she has issues with intimacy, because she’s a very talented brontomancer… talented enough to electrocute anyone by bopping hips with them.

    I’d be very interested to hear the opinions of any actual bat-winged mares, petrification victims, mind controllers, masters of animation magic, or girls who accidentally taser boys with their touch. Or, you know, if you’re a regular flying reindeer, your input would be appreciated, too, obviously. Gotta be inclusive with your sensitivity readers, right?

    Geez, I wonder if Disney had to hire actual Jedi when they made the last few Star Wars films… now that would make for an interesting story.

  42. I am utterly, totally against this “modern” cultural BS. I write books that, like the Joker, say, “Wait till they get a load of me.”

  43. What a moment in publishing! I’d love to be the bright mind that writes a novel about this disturbing industry trend, about the timid and fearful personalities that think this will save their behinds, and the Norman Mailer-type authors that are having none of it, and the vast public that falls asleep reading these sanitized novels, and the black-market book dealers who give the desperate public the daring stories it wants. Tom Wolfe, are you too old to take this on?

  44. Jane says:

    Why on earth would I ever want my audience to be a bunch of hypersensitive, looking-to-be-offended types? Everyone on this planet could find something to be outraged about.

    Uh un, censoring manuscripts to appeal to the sensitive whiners will never be my audience. The writer writes from his/her heart, he doesn’t measure and evaluate every word to please someone.

    Scary. Very scary. I shudder at the thought of a massive body of thought and work, self-censored to adapt to a very intolerant generation. Uniformity and conformity has no place in art.

  45. Beyond Cynicism says:

    The first target of fascism (of the Left or the Right) is the lanuage and culture of the subject nation.

    Orwell understood this all too well with his “NewSpeak” and, as in so many things, his prescience is coming frighteningly true today.

    Some words to think about in 2018:

    “liberal” means “illiberal”.
    “democrat” means “anti-democrat”
    “tolerance” means “intolerance”
    “diversity” means “uniformity”
    “creativity” means “conformity”
    “inclusivity” means “exclusitity”
    “sensitivity” means “censorship”
    “social justice” means “puritanical fascism”
    “cultural appropriation” means “I can take, borrow or adapt from your culture but you may not do the same with mine”
    “offended” means “thought control”

    The list goes on.

    1. I fail to understand how hiring a sensitivity reader will make your work more authentic. Authenticity comes from the individual, not a politically correct censor. Authors should write what they know, who they know, and how they feel. If an author cannot create an authentic character who is the opposite of him or her, the author should quit writing. The current rage not to offend anyone is far too much like the Comstockery of the 19th century. Comstock is the guy who thought the works of Shakespeare should be rewritten so the text would not offend young maidens. He also opposed women having the right to vote and to use birth control. No one would care except the he was the US Postal Inspector who had 4,000 people arrested for publishing “indecent material.” Is that next?

    2. Saroni Kellogg says:

      I totally agree. This is simply censorship given a soft, fluffy name. If people don’t like what you write they don’t have to read it! We have to draw the line somewhere and stop catering to the PC police.

    3. Ava Greene says:

      Good one. I like that.

      Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press.

      Hey, if I have to tolerate pornography being legal (‘no censorship’ there), then everybody else can just put up with freedom of the press. And if publishing houses are afraid of their own product, boo-hoo, power to the indies. If all the poor sensitive ones who feel life is so unjust had their way, Donald Trump would’ve been banned from running for office—he’s a rich white man. But, oops, the majority voted for him. And rampant ‘sensitivity’ is the main reason they did. If the Sensitive Party had its way, the majority would be totally eliminated. Speaking of which, when’s the last time you heard the word, ‘majority’?

  46. Woo says:

    Sure are a lot of edgy comments in here and not a lot of rationality. No one is forcing you to use a sensitivity reader, it’s an option some people are seeking out because they want to be sure that they’re writing authetically about people or cultures unlike themselves. I promise, you’re not as unique or controversial as you think you are and no one is coming to take away your books. So maybe put down the pitchforks and have some fiber boosted yogurt or something before you all collapse into hysterics about those consarned evil hippie millenials who are responsible for every issue plaguing the world currently.

    That being said, I agree with one of the posters who said its better that marginalized writers get a chance in the spotlight instead of finding another way for the status quo to continue under the guise of neoliberal enlightenment. That’s a mere bandaid on the ignorance problem with mainstream writers.

    1. Chris says:

      So Woo… you feel that (Quote) “No one is forcing you to use a sensitivity reader, it’s an option some people are seeking out because they want to be sure that they’re writing authentically about people or cultures unlike themselves.” do you?

      Isn’t that just another way of describing good writing that has been researched properly? It’s not about ‘sensitivity’… just accuracy.

      As I explained in my reply to Lucy further up, sensitivity readers are something very different indeed.

  47. Beverly says:

    It’s all about the intended audience!

    I would consider hiring a Sensitivity Reader that is in tune to the audience I am aiming for, not one who is looking to please everyone.

  48. Jon O'Bergh says:

    Both sides of this argument make good points. When I was a teenager, I wrote a short story that used a metaphor based on a stereotype (not only was it insensitive, it was trite). Reading it many years later, I was horrified by what I had written, and changed it when I repurposed the story. At the same time, AC Grayson is right to resist changing the ethnicity of a character simply because “it might offend someone.” (Does anyone remember that Good Times episode where Thelma is asked to change a bunch of things in her play?) I’m gay and might be offended if the villain in a story is gay, but there ARE gay villains. What’s important here? If I’m using a cliche, plus it’s gratuitous and not essential for the plot, I might want to reconsider. Whether you use a sensitivity reader or not, just think before you leap.

  49. Jean says:

    “Sensitivity reader” is another word for “censor.” And the criteria each of these censors uses is their “feelings” – nothing objective, nothing that requires evidence, just their feelings and their personal opinions.

    I don’t like everything that is put into print. I have a right not to like it. But I have no “right” not to be offended. I can debate the premise, critique the work and express my own opinion, either in public to to the author privately. I don’t have any right to shut that author down.

    The uber-snowflakes who are demanding this type of mollycoddling had best think about what they are asking for, because they might just get it. And tney may find that those they assume are friends and allies are far from that. The Soviet Union did exactly this kind of thing during Stalin’s reign. One Hollywood writer, a proud, card-carrying Communist Party member, began noticing that many of his friends were not just disappearing, but had all of their works eradicated. It was as though they never existed. Budd Schulberg left the Communist Party, writing a scathing parable of the ideology and tactics used called, The Arkansas Traveler. This story as well as Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” should be required reading for this generation.

  50. When coaching my writers, I always have them compile a list of their ideal readers (at least 10, ideal 20) and then before we publish, we solicit feedback––with guidance that includes a dozen or so crafted questions around the type of feedback we’re looking for. We expect honesty. We, however, do not make changes that affect or alter the message or author’s intent.

    I’ve been in the publishing world for three decades, and I know that the raw, real, courageous words we share on paper are important. We write to heal from our wounds, discover something new about ourselves, and glean some greater understanding of the world we live in. As we do so, so will our readers.

    Painful events can be written with honesty and sensitivity. I’ve written memoir and blogs where I speak of some really tough times in a volatile relationship with the father of my children and my mother. Two decades later my ex and I share time with our children at holidays. While my authenticity and transparency is important so is honoring the new relationship we have-–as well as the relationship he has with our children and grandchildren.

    So we can be honest, raw, real––and sensitive at the same times. However, we do not need to write to please others. We write to please ourselves.

  51. As an author, my *experiences* form the basis of my writing. I’ve been everything from a construction laborer to Heavy Equipment operator to computer specialist to custom graphic printer. 🙂 I’ve met/known/worked with really intelligent to really dumb people, so I have “diversity.” 😛 A good author includes _knowing_ a diverse group of people.

  52. Lara says:

    to be true, I don’t care at all about people’s “sensitivities” – to me it’s just censorship and bullying, I don’t consider acceptable to be forced to write “black” when I want to write “white” instead just because someone might scream their fake outrage
    it’s very simple – if a vegan writes a book on veganism, should they be forced to not write the reality of what happens in slaughterhouses and farms not to “offend” the “sensitivity of meat eaters and of those who thrive from that market somehow? personally, I don’t care – I care only about the truth
    also, if I wanted to write a novel in which the good characters are white and the bad ones are black should I be censored and not allowed to write what I want? I refuse this kind of destruction of free thought and free speech

  53. Sue Roman says:

    I spent the last hour reading most of the replies and writing a reply and after editing and rewriting and trying to get it to be ‘politically’ correct, I deleted it.

    I guess the only way to address this issue is to (1) buy a rubber stamp and on each copy of my yet to be self-published first novel stamp ‘Sensitivity Approved ‘ on the jacket cover; or (2) put sticky labels with ‘Sensitivity Approved’ on the edge of the front cover, spans the width of the book then adheres to the back cover; or (3) publish the book like I’ve written it and hope that consciously or unconsciously I haven’t offended anyone and if I have, they will put the book down and walk away.

  54. I don’t need a sensitivity editor. Like Pontius Pilate wrote, “What I have written, I have written.” People get offended at the most inconsequential things. And if my characters do things out of their stereotypes, what is that to over-sensitive readers? In fact, controversy might just work to my advantage in publicizing my writing.

  55. This is an issue that reflects the times we live in. With all due respect, anything that makes ones writing better is worth the time. I’m old school in that regard. But I’m also coming up on 60 years of age. So I’m an old geezer and glad to still be alive. I was there during the Civil Rights movement. I was bused to an all white school at age seven. My older brother was drafted into Viet Nam. I had friends who went to Canada to avoid the draft. I know girls who had illegal abortions and were damaged by it. I could go on and on. In other words I’ve seen a whole lot of things in my days. The point is todays generation doesn’t much care about all that. When I taught college classes I was informed that history was just a waste of time. If they wanted to know something they would just look it up online. Well there you have it. My favorite saying was from a Hippy friend of mine who used to say: “Will it mean shit to a tree in a hundred years?” If not, who cares.

  56. Joan says:

    I would absolutely NOT hire a sensitivity person to go through my work. It’s another form of censorship and conformity. All the great writers of the world would be turning over in their graves to even think that this can come to be the “new” think in writing. I find it appalling that anyone would allow someone who says their sensitive to issues to come near my work. Not only that, they’re strangers to any writer. I think this new thing is just that: a new thing. It’s stupid and anyone who says they’ll just use them so they can add things the writer may have missed, is drinking kool-aid. They can do the research on their own and it will be exactly as the writer wants his/her copy to read. Now we have the PC treading on our creativity. Everyone beware.

  57. I have written for decades and have never heard of sensitivity readers. I have an editor who is sensitive to some of my verbiage in my children’s novel/children’s book, etc. An author writes what he/she knows with the help of research, interviews, input from beta readers, writer’s groups/ etc. There is wisdom with many counselors. At least that’s what the Word says, and I believe it. It’s up to the author to decide what wisdom/advice he/she uses, and what an author discards. The world has become a politically correct place, to the point of ridiculous. Good writing is based on good sense/taste. What you would never say to your Grandma/ mother etc, should never be said to your readers, or anyone as a matter of fact. It’s called respect. Stick to the elements that make up good writing, be aware of your audience, but not to the point of obsessing. Writing a book is hard enough without making it harder. I have fun when I write. I laugh a lot. And I agree with Robert Frost when connecting with your audience, not only in laughter, but tears,–no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

    1. Chris says:

      Karen… You say (Quote) “What you would never say to your Grandma/ mother etc, should never be said to your readers, or anyone as a matter of fact.”… Maybe not… but in fiction, your character might not be so respectful of the other character he’s speaking to. I write crime novels, and not only are some of my characters less than perfect in their social skills, some of my police officers didn’t quite get the idea when sent away on ‘diversity’ courses… It’s the way real people are, and if we want to portray real people, we need to reflect that in our writing. Get the real things real, and the fictional things will be believed… Otherwise our books will end up as trite and unrealistic as so many of today’s Hollywood movies (which also don’t seem to worry too much about respect and bad language).

  58. FL Turner says:

    It is a responsibility of literature to bring truth into the light. Racism and sexism aren’t just overt, but are more insidiously built into the structures of culture, and so of course it’s vital to become aware of and dismantle such instituionalized and encultured beliefs, perceptions and practices. But it is the very realism of some literary forms that can bring about this awareness, and to police the thoughts, words and deeds of characters in fiction for fear of who will be offended, or how the author might be percieved, is to do an injustice to one of our most traditional means of discovering the truths of the injustices we’d like eliminated from society. The work of good writers allows us to delve into worlds we might never have known; sometimes those worlds are ugly. We should be thankful to the wrriters who act as our unflinching guides in worlds we can now understand without having to spend a life-time experiencing them. Let writers write truly.

  59. James Mecham says:

    The last thing we need: sensitivity readers = code for politically correct, bland, non-creative, formulaic, boring writing.

    Sounds like an attempt to find employment for SJW, get them out of their parents’ basements, and destroy our 1st Amendment.

  60. Sharon Goodier says:

    This is such a complex issue. We don’t want to end up like Maoist China where every written work was scrutinized and poets went crazy…literally. In Canada, Milton Acorn, one of our well-known poets, was part of a Maoist group in the 70’s that did the same thing to him…literally drove him to a breakdown. On the other hand, we want to make sure, particularly as white, anglo writers (which I am) that we don’t assume the world actually is as we see it from our lived experience. In this case, a reasonable sensitivity reader would be helpful in pointing out words or phrases that assume the above without owning the limitation of the lived experience of the writer. I have a poem about a fictional conversation with an indigenous woman at a rally and I’m afraid to publish it in case I’m appropriating, although the woman does all the talking, not me. Perhaps it would help to publish some actual writing that underwent sensitivity reading and publish the changes that were suggested. This would clarify and put an end to the paranoia this topic engenders.

  61. Geleta Fenton says:

    (1) You are a publisher. (2) You asked for comments on publishers hiring sensitivity readers. And you have the pompous nerve to say “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” To censor my words. Ah, yes, Big Brother is here and you are one of them. I have often recommended your site when speaking to writers. No longer. Bye Bye Big Brother Bookbaby.

    1. Andre says:

      Sheesh. We get so many spammy, self-promotional, and unrelated comments on our blogs that we’ve chosen to read and approve comments to make sure they relate to the content and aren’t a bot-generated ad or completely off topic. If it relates to the content — pro or con — and contributes to the conversation, all comments get approved.

  62. Tim says:

    Personally I wouldn’t use a sensitivity reader. You can’t judge how a large group of people will react based on the reaction of one person. While I can appreciate some authors wanting to respect the feelings of their readers we all know it is impossible to make everyone happy. Something about a writers work might offend at least one person. Whether it is the subject matter being written or certain scenes or things the character does and says. Plus getting a book published can be a rather expensive process so why lose more money? But if that is what you want to do then go ahead. Authors need the freedom to write as they see fit. While it is always nice to get some good and honest critique we can’t let that dictate how we write simply because we don’t want to offend anyone.

    1. Chris says:

      Good point, Tim… Spend more money on getting a sensitivity reader to make sure you publish a bland book that no one will want to buy.

      Yeah… That’ll work out fine, won’t it?

  63. Robin Petro says:

    I might be more worried if I wasn’t offending anyone. If my work is too refined it may sink to the level of pap. Recently I was editing a poem of mine and thought twice about saying that a Japanese violinist treated his violin as if it was Godzilla trying to eat his face. Then I realized that someone might have a problem with that. I decided to leave it in.

  64. Ann SIms says:

    I am not sure if my interpretation is correct. But what I think I am hearing is it’s about being politically correct in the Millenial. I can only imagine that Beige kind of thinking would lack impact. if it’s trying to be all things to all people.

    However, I personally have become offended and discarded a Book because of all the nonstop Blasphemy and overdose of Vulgar language.I could not even find the Plot.

    I have recently heard an older lady say. I have always loved reading and have been apart of the Library book club and gets piles of books delivered to my home. But quite honestly, in the later years I find, I am having to push many aside as they are perverted and She said she felt negatively impacted.

    Another said. I have been asked to read this book. But quite honestly I just feel contaminated like being in a river of filth.

    One Librarian commented. I read older period books because I feel they are safer. I can trust that the period will have those standards and Values.
    from a Marketplace point of view. Authors should be mindful that without considering some of these issues Sales could be affected.

  65. Traditional publishing has become a recycling business, especially in erotic romance. I made a conscious decision to write for the discerning and sophisticated readers who, like me, want to read something substantial and worthwhile instead of disposable book products. I wanted to write books for readers who are ambitious enough to want to read about different lives and situation, cultures & ethnic groups, not readers who want what they can “identify with”. I write about sex but I wont do the chains and whips and humiliation, because I wouldn’t let anyone do that with me and I find it demeaning. I want readers who are selective, experimental and sophisticated.

    I have deliberately refrained from bowing to publishers’ editors who want me to write books that they have decided “will sell”. I’m fully aware of this manipulative ploy that is calculated towards “trimming” readers, particularly women, to only read a particular type of literature; the type that goes by the name “commercial” or “mainstream”.

    I have nothing against readers who prefer erotica that involves physical and social pain and humiliation. But I prefer erotic psychological battles. I’m not letting any editor/publisher force me into “damaged” protagonists and their torture chambers for women. I refuse to write ©McErotica and pen down ©Sophisterotica, no copycat million shades of idiocy for women.

  66. Linda says:

    Then what’s the point of any writing if all people want is feel-good stuff? And does that mean all literature before now should undergo sensitivity editing and redo all of those books or ban them completely? This is the complete censorship. And does that mean all things of violence are no longer allowed in books? No more rape, murder, abuse, thievery, lying, cheating, adultery…the list goes on. At what point has “sensitive” gone too far? Before long, nothing will be allowed. Then what do we write about? Conflict is the fuel for fiction. Without conflict, there is no fiction.

    1. Chris says:

      “No more rape, murder, abuse, thievery, lying, cheating, adultery…the list goes on.”

      Blimey!… I’m a crime novelist. I’d be well buggered if that was the case.

  67. Suzsi M says:

    Sensitivity is different things to different people.
    I remember being GROSSLY offended by a TV program that showed the interviews that police held with a man who’d confessed to murdering a number of women, because he was a violent misogynist. In the interview, his very graphic accounts were unedited, violent and downright scarey. But when he used the “F-Word” it was Bleeped out.
    Okay to say how you stalked, raped, tortured and murdered women.
    Not okay to use the word fuck.
    That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we face if we allow the sensitivity-idiot brigade to be the arbitrators of content.

  68. Ben Boyd, Jr. says:

    Diversity does not need to be ‘added’ to any story. If the story has diversity, it is because the story demands that type of character. We are all different. Celebrate the differences in people in your story. Make it raw, uncensored, and forget about being snowflake acceptable. Make it from the heart.

  69. Ruth says:

    This sounds more like self-editing than editing. Write the truth as you know it and let the reader choose to agree, disagree, be offended, be pleasantly surprised. Let’s not re-write history before we even make it.

  70. Janet says:

    Every writer has an target market. A certain group that they are focusing on. I read only what interest me and that’s what most people do. I would say if a sensitive reader want to add or take away from my book, I have the option to say no. No one can say it the way I can.

  71. Leland Parker says:

    Name ANY book EVER written and I assure you there is something over which someone CAN be offended. From the Bible to Moby Dick to Pride & Prejudice to Sponge Bob! The issue is we’ve entered an era where intolerance is in style. Outrage in vogue. In fact I’m coining the phrase “Ism-ism” to name what we are now experiencing: A time when racism, feminism, and fascism among many others have such wide berth that almost anything can be swept into their definition. But the core issue is intolerance. The necessary ingredient for upheaval and war. If you are the type that prays, pray that I am wrong.

  72. Louis says:

    When I hear that a sensitivity reader will help make my ethnic or sexual minority characters more authentic, I am convinced they will turn out to be stereotypical. Lets say I write about a gay character who is a Republican and joins the Log Cabin Society. Will my sensitivity reader want the character to be a full fledged liberal activist instead? I fear being presented with a rewrite that pleases hose who promote an agenda.

    Fiction is supposed to have conflict. Both between characters and within individual characters. If sensitivity readers did not like a boorish character who is insensitive to different races and ethnicity, would that character be rewritten to fit a mold. How then would the part of the story where he loses friends and jobs because of his behavior make sense and fit in?

    In the end, all you have is a a category of “educational” literature that teaches people the views and values they should have. No imperfect characters who have anything to learn or have any conflict with other people.

  73. My response to this is “bite me”. If someone is too sensitive to the content of a book then maybe instead of reading a book they need to find a good therapist. Society only moves forward when writers and other artists push the envelope on what is accepted and not accepted in society.

  74. As a Sensitivity Reader, author, and creator of a Sensitivity Reader course, I have come across objections as those mentioned above. I believe it is because of misunderstandings, or because of the word “sensitivity.”

    Some simply call us “diversity editors,” or “cultural experts.”

    Let me dispel some unthuths:

    – No one is forced to use a Sensitivity Reader
    – If they use one, it is up to them to make the suggested changes (or not)

    Sensitivity Readers are not just minorities, they are people who have an “intimate knowledge” of being disabled, dealing with mental illness, may be a little person, may be Muslim, may be Jewish. They may live in low-income housing, a trailer park, obese or plus size. They have specific life experiences and specific “niches” that they draw upon when someone is doing their due-diligence when researching a subject or person that they have little or no knowledge of.

    Sensitivity Readers are simply another tool in the writers belt that is available.

    Let’s say you are writing a medical drama book. You could simply write about how you “think” things work in a hospital and how you “think” a medical procedure would be performed. But isn’t it better to actually speak with someone who is a doctor or works at a hospital to give you advice or feedback?

    That is all that Sensitivity Reading is. Several years ago I wrote a screenplay based on real people who lived during the Hungarian Revolution. I actually took my first trip to Europe ever to visit the Royal Goegraphical Society to read actual manuscripts written by the people I wrote about. I also took a train ride to Salisbury England to meet with descendants of the family. Once my script was written, I sent them a copy to review for any glaring errors. They found a few. That experience could be considered using a Sensitivity Reader.

    Again, as a working Sensitivity Reader, it feels really good to have a writer let me know how a second eye on their work helped. Very gratifying.

    If you have specific questions about working as one, or hiring one, I welcome questions.

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