Have you ever read something that pertains to an area you are familiar with, or a group that you are part of, and felt disappointed, frustrated or even offended by how off the mark the work was? Or worse, how it pandered to demeaning stereotypes. One’s initial reaction might be to wonder why the writer did not do their research better rather than seemingly base their conclusions on pervading or historical opinion. In fact, authors are often criticized for allowing stereotyping to seep into their work (based on enduring assumptions or their own frames of reference) and in the process misrepresenting different sectors of society.

But is this entirely fair? Can we reasonably expect every writer to fully understand and portray at a deeper and more accurate level the challenges and sensibilities of a culture or minority that they are neither familiar with nor part of? The answer, of course, is no – it is not a realistic expectation.  

A solution to this rather complex issue has now emerged in the form of sensitivity readers. As the name suggests this is a not an editorial role but rather a way of ensuring that certain groups or individuals are more accurately portrayed and not depicted in a stereotypical way. A sensitivity reader will read a text or book with the aim of correcting misrepresentations and providing valuable insights and veracity through their own knowledge or personal experience. Simply put, they are an additional resource. For example, if someone is writing a book on a gay person growing up in the Middle East as part of a study on global attitudes, then using a sensitivity reader with a similar background can be very helpful in ensuring a correct portrayal.

It can be useful to bring in sensitivity readers for works on (but not limited to):

  • Different ethnic and cultural backgrounds
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disabilities
  • Refugees

The objective of using a sensitivity reader is not to rewrite history or change a book. Instead their input can have a positive effect on the work in question. The gain is twofold. Firstly, the writer produces more accurate work in terms of human representation and therefore reduces the risk of demeaning or offending the people they have written about which could in turn negatively impact the success of the book. Secondly, it offers the reader a much truer and more enlightened view which can help educate them as well as serving to dismiss previously held misconceptions.

As a self-publishing author consider adding this valuable resource to your literary toolbox. Ask your publisher or print consultant for recommendations and guidance.

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Mary Vaux-ClarkMary Vaux-Clark is a freelance editor, proof-reader and writer. Her areas of interest include current affairs, travel, history and sport. She has travelled widely and worked in Hong Kong as an editor and ESL teacher for over ten years.