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Using a Sensitivity Reader

When we set out to write our debut novel, Snowsisters (Interlude Press 2018), we included Orly, a trans girl, as an important secondary character.  Snowsisters takes place at a weeklong writing conference for high school girls and we wanted to represent all types of girls at the conference.  Our aim was to depict Orly as a strong, realistic character who faces down bias from a small group of secondary characters and to create conflict between the two main characters in how to support and whether to defend Orly.  As cisgender authors, we lack firsthand experience of the trans experience. In order to represent Orly as fairly and accurately as possible, our publisher requested that we engage two trans women as sensitivity readers to review our manuscript.  


A sensitivity reader reviews the representation in manuscripts of characters from marginalized groups, based on the sensitivity reader’s own experience and knowledge. When authors include characters from marginalized groups and do not have the benefit of their own direct experience, a sensitivity reader’s assessment and comments are extremely helpful in accurate and positive representation.  Sensitivity readers recognize biased, potentially harmful or false content and help authors to address, avoid or remove it.  


By way of example, Tom has provided sensitivity reads to other authors, employing his experiences as a gay man growing up during the early years of the AIDS crisis to correct errors, present historical facts omitted and to shape queer characters’ subjective feelings.  


Finding a sensitivity reader is not easy.  When we were drafting Snowsisters, the go-to database for sensitivity readers was maintained by Justina Ireland at www.writeinthemargins.com.  We found one of our sensitivity readers, Ashley Rogers, through this database, but the other came from a listing posted for us by a friend who is a gender studies professor at a nearby college.  In March, 2018, Ms. Ireland stopped hosting the database because many of the readers listed had been poorly treated by authors. However, there are at least three other online resources where sensitivity readers list their contact information and areas of expertise:  (a) Diversity Cross check at https://diversitycrosscheck.tumblr.com/tags; (b) Writing Diversely at https://www.writingdiversely.com/directory; and (c) A Bee Writes, at https://beekian.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/marginalized-editors-and-sensitivity-readers-list/.  


Our sensitivity readers helped us in four important ways.  First, they cautioned us to avoid having the cis-girls act as “saviors” for Orly, describing this as a tired trope in literature with queer characters.  Second, they made specific suggestions which shaped Orly’s story arc, recognizing the opportunity to point out to cisgender readers that Orly was strong enough to brush off any bias with humor, rather than be crushed by it.  Third, our sensitivity readers urged us to expand Orly’s storyline and to have Orly demonstrate that the conflict she faced was not what the other girls at the conference understood it to be. Finally, they were able to recommend specific changes so as not to offend trans readers.  


In hiring a sensitivity reader, authors should expect to pay a reasonable amount based on the length of their manuscript or the portions to be reviewed.  The best feedback is frank and specific, so authors should be prepared to receive criticism, whether or not they subsequently choose to incorporate it into their work.  An author is entitled to a general description of the sensitivity reader’s experience, but not to specific personal details, so questions should be kept on a professional and not a personal level.  An author should get permission from the sensitivity reader before identifying them in connection with the work and the sensitivity reader may want to review the completed text before agreeing to be identified.


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Tom Wilinsky and Jen Sternick are the authors of Snowsisters. Check out their website for more information and updates: www.neverhaveieverbooks.com

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