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Sensitivity Readers: An Editing Specialty Comes of Age

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

A cartoon of people of different genders, races, abilities
We are a nation rich in diversity.

In June 2019, I posted an article to this blog called "Sensitivity Readers Are Not Censors." At that time, controversy was swirling around the role and appropriateness of the so-called sensitivity reader (SR). I had a hard time finding clear, positive discussions of what an SR was and what one does. Even the prestigious New York Times ran that article titled “In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?” by Alex Alter that was as unflattering as you could get about SRs.

This go-round, I will tell you what SRs actually do and why now, a mere year and a half later, the need for writers and publishers to employ SRs is the norm and not the exception.

SRs Aren’t Going Away

The Chicago Manual of Style weighed in on these issues in Section 5.254: Bias and the editor’s responsibility. It says in part:

A careful editor points out to authors any biased terms or approaches in the work (knowing, of course, that the bias may have been unintentional), suggests alternatives, and ensures that any biased language that is retained is retained by choice.

Conscious Language

Conscious language is a term coined by Conscious Style Guide founder Karen Yin. According to Yin, conscious language is the art of using words effectively in a specific context. Who is your audience? What tone and level of formality do you want? What are you trying to achieve? Some words are more apt than others. The most important part of conscious language is the conscious part—our intention.

Conscious Style Guide described itself as:

…the first website devoted to conscious language. Our mission is to help writers and editors think critically about using language—including words, portrayals, framing, and representation—to empower instead of limit. In one place, you can access style guides covering terminology for various communities and find links to key articles debating usage. We study words so that they can become tools instead of unwitting weapons.

Yin’s website is replete with resources from scores of other websites (divided into sensitivity categories), a newsletter, blog, and, of course, the obligatory store.

What Sensitivity Readers Offer

Crystal Shelley is a full-time editor, proofreader and sensitivity reader who works as Rabbit with a Red Pen. In addition, Crystal is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

According to Crystal, authors, editors, and publishers employ sensitivity readers to accomplish four goals:

  • Strengthen the story

  • Identify potential harmful elements of the writing

  • Assess the effectiveness of the language

  • Evaluate biases

While the role of a sensitivity reader is most often associated with editing fiction, an SR’s specialty is applicable to all forms of writing, including blogs, memoirs, and long-form essays. Sensitivity readers strengthen writing by helping the writer with these elements:

  • Character description

  • Dialogue and character behaviors

  • Cultural elements and settings

The role of an SR is to flag problems with language, but, most importantly, they will offer alternative language and depictions.

How can a sensitivity reader strengthen writing? An SR reads with the goal of rooting out language that is:

  • Disrespectful

  • Excluding

  • Stigmatizing

  • Presumptive

Writing that is devoid of harmful, derogatory, and disrespectful language builds trust; readers can see the author cared enough to do their homework.

Diversity Baseline Survey

Lee & Low Books released the first Diversity Baseline Survey 1.0 in 2015. Before the DBS, people suspected publishing had a diversity problem, but without hard numbers, the extent of that problem was anyone’s guess. The goal was to survey publishing houses and review journals to capture information about their employees, their publishing workforce, regarding these categories:

  • Race

  • Gender

  • Sexual orientation

  • Disability (chronic, physical, and mental illness)

The results of DBS 1.0 were shocking. The publishers' survey respondents were identified as:

  • 79 percent White

  • 78 percent women

  • 88 percent straight

  • 92 percent non-disabled

As readers had begun to demand to see themselves depicted in books, the publishing industry itself did not reflect the diversity of our country's populace.

The numbers provided by DBS 1.0 brought into sharp focus the need of publishers to place more books into the marketplace that represent our country's rich diversity, but initially, this effort was apparent only in the children's book market. Cultural events and political and social movements in the five years since the DBS 1.0 cannot be ignored by the industry.

Diversity in Publishing Matters

According to a Lee and Low blog article from January 2020, the book industry has the power to shape culture in big and small ways. The people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?

Are You Out of Step?

If you do not grasp the importance of diversity in writing, and the need to accurately and kindly represent people of different races, genders, orientation, and disabilities, you are out of step with the US publishing industry. One could argue you are out of step with humanity. If a discussion of sensitivity to “the other” in your writing doesn’t speak to your heart, I am reminded of a quote from Dr. Anthony Fauci:

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care for other people.

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