Sensitivity Readers: Why You Should Never Skip This Step
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… if I can’t give a book a good review, I’d prefer not to give it one at all. As a writer, I’m fully aware that not everything is for everyone, and tearing down my fellow authors is the exact opposite direction I want to go with my life. My reviews are there to tell people all about the awesome books I’ve read that I can genuinely recommend… not to gripe and moan about things that didn’t float my personal boat.
However, sometimes there are reasons beyond individual taste that make me add books to my Did Not Finish (DNF) pile. Things that fall into the offensive, hateful, or morally corrupt department. Things like…
Unnecessary bigotry, racism, or sexism
Especially when it's performed by a main character and/or it's present without a driving plot-based purpose. Unfortunately, these things are part of our modern society, so leaving them completely out of your book would only serve to create an unrealistic rendering of the world we live within. But having these present, as a conflict point or obstacle your character(s) must overcome, is an entirely different beast than having them there for no other reason than to spew hate.
And, please… for the love of all things good, don’t have your main characters—people we, as readers, are supposed to root for and love—be cruel and bigoted unless you intend it to be part of a redemption arc.
Murder, rape, or incest performed by a lead in a romance novel
I know anti-heroes are a thing, and I adore Dexter, but I don’t want that in my romance. It’s really hard to root for a love interest when they’re a murderer or rapist, whether it be in their past, present, or future. Yes, there are certain circumstances that can be forgiven or overlooked (i.e. a cop who kills in the line of duty) but these are forgivable because they don’t truly fall into any of these categories.
Incest is a thing all its own. I’m aware there is a subset of readers out there who find this to be a fetish of sorts, and kudos to them… but it ain’t my kink, and I highly advise anyone looking to make their book mainstream in any way, shape, or form to avoid this. And, no, I’m not referring to step-kink (that’s a bit more socially and morally acceptable, so a tad safer.) I mean the real deal: blood on blood. No thanks. (Note: if you *do* decide your story requires any of these items, I'm certainly not telling you it isn't allowed. But consider reading my post on trigger warnings and provide one for readers like me who might prefer to steer clear of a story with those sort of elements. 💕)
Unresearched, harmful portrayals of lifestyles and communities
This falls back a bit on the idea of racism, bigotry, and even sexism, but it goes a bit deeper. Far too many people blindly write about things they know nothing about and wind up grossly misrepresenting the subject. To the point, in many cases, of causing very real harm.
No, I’m not talking about delving into the world of, say, dental hygienists. I’m talking about communities—especially those already marginalized and misunderstood—where an inaccurate depiction can further support terrible prejudices and stereotypes… and can even create new ones.
When I find things like this in a book, there’s a very good (okay, pretty much 100%) chance I’m going to stop reading. Yes, I’m only one reader, and not everyone is offended by the same things… but the fact of the matter is, if you aren’t writing #ownvoices but there is diversity in your story or characters, you need to approach the subject with knowledge, compassion, and careful thought.
I’ve already touted the importance of beta readers—and I truly hope each and every one of you utilize these invaluable resources—but the purpose of this blog is to discuss a very specific beta reader niche: sensitivity readers.
What is a sensitivity reader, you ask? Quite simple. They’re a beta reader who belongs to the community or lifestyle you’ve chosen to write about falling outside your #ownvoices sphere of expertise. Sometimes they treat the read as a true beta and provide general and sensitivity feedback, but often they're simply a reader who can provide honest, reliable criticism and advice on the topics and subjects close to their heart.
I believe this is an imperative step that should never be skipped. I applaud every single author who chooses to tackle diverse subject matter and characters. However, I’ve seen so many painful examples of writers setting out to support diversity and winding up with a product that only serves to hurt rather than bolster these ideals.
Looking at my list of things guaranteeing a DNF on my end, it’s clear not all specifically require a sensitivity reader to avoid. (Like, okay, your characters either rape, murder, and boink their relatives or they don’t, am I right?) But the rest of my complaints could be mostly avoided with a sensitivity read and a mind open to change.
For example, if you’re a Caucasian, as I am, who includes characters of other races within your story, get a reader who identifies as the same race as your character(s). Give them carte blanche to be one hundred percent honest with you about how that character is portrayed. Are you inadvertently describing their skin tone in an offensive manner? Do you skip or include cultural practices that are important or stereotypical in nature, respectively? Do your characters interact in appropriate ways that don’t encourage prejudice or inequality? Are you using insulting terminology or depicting the character in an unnecessarily racially charged fashion?
These readers are a vital part of the pre-pub process. The knowledge they can provide to assist you, as a writer, in depicting other cultures and communities both accurately and appropriately is invaluable. I’ve read so many books where it’s clear they were sent to press without taking this step, and the book as a whole suffered. So, unfortunately, did the community it misrepresented.
One final thing I’d like to point out is all communities and lifestyles falling outside a writer’s realm of personal experience and complete understanding should be given this same courtesy. Again, I’m not saying you must have a dental hygienist read your book if you’ve decided to give your MC that career path and it’s one you’ve had no experience with… but what I am saying is, use your head (and your heart.) Is there a chance something you’ve written might not be one hundred percent accurate because you’ve based it off research rather than experience? Could the people within that world be judged based off your inaccuracies?
If so, get a sensitivity reader. Find someone who can speak from genuine experience. Someone who can guide you down the right path. One who will strengthen your story because it'll be based on truth rather than poorly researched lies.
An area I’ve found where this is often overlooked is the BDSM community. More and more, stories about consensual domination and submission are finding their way into mainstream media as it grows in prominence and popularity. However, far too many of these stories are being written by people not actively in the lifestyle. Authors who simply get off on the idea of BDSM, but who've never truly experienced it, are writing tales filled with gross misrepresentations that shed an unflattering light on the community and support harmful stereotypes. Some stories even promote practices falling outside the safe, sane, and consensual guiding principles, which could result in dangerous outcomes for people dipping their toes in the BDSM waters and using fiction as a guidepost. Which, unfortunately, does happen.
So, in the end, I hope this blog helps you, as a writer, to think a little more critically about the story you’re writing. I'm in no way trying to discourage anyone from writing about things and people outside their realm of experience—exactly opposite, actually. I simply want you to do your research and depict them as accurately as possible. And that includes having someone within that group critique your portrayal to be sure it is as honest and true as possible.
Until next time,