So! You’ve written your first draft. Perhaps you’ve even moved on to on your second round of edits, and so far, so good. But, lo and behold, suddenly you’ve been ambushed by the phrase “sensitivity reader”, and you’re not totally sure what this has to do with you.
First things first. What is a sensitivity reader, and why do I need one?
A sensitivity reader (also known as a “sensitivity editor”) is someone who reads over a manuscript with the sole intention of looking for any potentially insensitive issues that may crop up in your writing. The editor will do this by using their expertise and lived experiences to make sure that you’re not falling into any hurtful language/stereotypes that may actually hurt your audience.
You may be wondering what this has to do with you – and if you’ve written an autobiography, then fair play, you may not need one. But if you’ve written a character that has a different ethnicity/nationality/language to you, then think of it as a form of fact check. The editor will make sure that you’re using the right terminology, the right cultural references, etc. to make sure that your characters and locations are just right. Personally, I’ve sensitivity read for authors who have British characters in them, who just wanted to make sure that they’d not gone too Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
Now, I understand. Writing a book is not easy. The thought of someone going through your book and telling you that you’ve been insensitive – someone you’ve paid, no less – is enough to give anyone pause. It might put you off writing for other groups entirely; you may even end up wondering whether you’re qualified to write this story in the first place.
These concerns are exactly what sensitivity editors help with. Sometimes it can be hard to remember, but sensitivity editors (indeed, most editors) just want to help you write a great book. It’s not possible for everyone to have intimate knowledge about the nuances about every culture and subculture in the world. One sensitivity editor can help with Indian representation, and you’ll likely need an entirely different editor for Italian representation. We all have our blind spots, but no editor takes for granted an author who takes the time and care to improve their work – and there’s nothing more impressive than a creator humble enough to seek out people who can help build their creation.
However, if you’re concerned about how to even start writing for a character with a completely different perspective, I like to refer back to that age-old adage – write what you know. Now, how to do that for someone with a different background to yourself? Research. Research. Research. Talk to people from that background. Read books about the history. Put yourself into their shoes, completely, and whole-heartedly. If you’re writing for another culture, learn as much as you can about the culture and their traditions, their values, and yes, even their stereotypes. Then talk to people of that culture, and ask them for their personal experiences, ask them where you’ve gone wrong, and then sit back and listen. Research. And research again.
Having said that, it would be incredibly difficult to write everything perfectly in your first draft – to that end, here are some common things that sensitivity editors notice, so try and tweak them if you can.
If your character has an accent, that’s fine! People have accents, that’s normal. But check – why does your character have an accent? Do they come from abroad? If they have an accent, are they always speaking the same way – stressing the same syllables, etc? Does it get heightened in certain situations – when they’re tired, happy or stressed? I once read a book where two characters came from broadly the same area, but one had a very heavy accent, whilst the other was speaking Queen’s English. It’s easy to forget, but keep it in mind.
People who speak more than one language do not interrupt themselves in every other sentence with “How you say (mimics object)?” This does happen sometimes, of course, but be realistic. Are you using this device to remind your readers that the character speaks more than one language, or is the character in a situation where they may have genuinely forgotten a word? I’m bilingual myself, and although there are definitely days where my brain doesn’t recall any words at all – in any language – it’s not an everyday occurrence, especially if I’m not deviating from my usual routine.
I trust and believe that most people do not seek to be hurtful, but if you’re not aware of some of the language or stereotypes you’re using, it is my responsibility to point it out. This is often a tricky area for many people, but try and do your research, and keep in mind that even if you fall into using language that may not be appropriate, please don’t worry – we editors do not think that this translates into a judgement of the author’s personality. As long as you’re open to learning, you have nothing to worry about.
We need good stories, and good stories need good writers – so if you have a good idea that you believe you can do justice to, there are precious few editors that will stop you.
I, for one, look forward to seeing what you create.