I can hear the torches being lit from here with a title like that. Like the Beacons of Gondor, save instead of summoning riders, they’re summoning an unhappy bunch.
And … I kind of get it. Today’s title is a controversial one which just so happens to take a stance that would see you broadly booted from many online spaces without even a question (but with lots of irony).
But as usual, and before with some of the more controversial subjects this series has discusses, I’m asking you, readers, to extend a bit of trust. Yes, I acknowledge that today’s topic will not be to everyone’s taste. As noted above, there are spheres on the web where such a suggestion would instantly see you banned without question, defense, or even time to say “I was just kidding!” Point being, there are people for whom the idea of a “sensitivity reader” is sacrosanct, even more important than an editor or a copy-edit session.
Thing is, this doesn’t usually produce good books, because there are fundamental issues with sensitivity readers and what they do. One that makes them ideologically appealing to certain circles but an unfortunately toxic tool in many instances.
So, let’s dive into it. Let’s discuss the post that’s probably going to be the most controversial thing I write all year. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about why instead of getting a sensitivity reader, you should probably just track down an expert.
Let’s begin with what prompted today’s topic, an occurrence I witnessed that immediately highlights the fundamental flaw of sensitivity readers. If you’re wondering what a sensitivity reader is, we’ll cover that in doing so.
See, a month ago I was witness to a discussion on using sensitivity readers (among other things), and someone asked a question that, as I see it, perfectly encapsulates where this concept goes wrong.
This person related that they had written a story with a fantasy culture that was so honorbound it was self-destructing, their beliefs in personally applied penalty literally bleeding them of all their best talent via honor-based redemption suicide (IE, you’re a great general but you lost a battle, so to make up for the honor staining your family, you commit a fantasy form of seppuku).
First of all? Props to the writer who asked about this: That is a neat concept. This culture wasn’t the protagonist’s of their story, to hear them tell it, but that’s a unique bit of world-setting to have that most people wouldn’t tackle because that’s a complicated bit of culture. Unfortunately, the response they got was less than great, because this writer asked if that was something they needed to be concerned about with “sensitivity readers” as already mentioned, and the answer they were given was to be assured that they very badly needed a sensitivity reader to handle this “problematic” society that had been created in the story.
And that is where I immediately disagreed with the discussion. This writer’s idea wasn’t “problematic,” but a case of “blue and orange morality,” of a society that was not like our modern society and held different values and ideals. Unfortunately, what was prescribed to this writer was to find multiple sensitivity readers to “fix” this and pave over the unique culture they had created with modern concepts in order to do so.
In the process, and by design, ruining the unique scenario this writer had set out to create.
This is why I don’t advise “sensitivity readers.” Sensitivity readers aren’t experts on something. It’s not a requirement at all. The only requirement of a sensitivity reader is that they have strong feelings on a topic, and a desire to “correct” anyone that gets that topic “wrong.” Yes, I know some of you are having aneurisms at that portrayal because you disagree most sternly, but let’s look again at that example above: The aim of the sensitivity reader wasn’t to provide context to that writer, or to more accurately delve into the culture they were writing about the stagnation of. It was to pave over it by removing controversial—aka “problematic”—elements. And this is what sensitivity readers do.
To sum it up simply: Sensitivity readers very often miss the point of fiction. The goal of a sensitivity reader is to apply a coat of their own moral paint over your painstakingly crafted world, which may be full of orange and blue morality, to line it up with a set of “modern-day morals” that may be entirely incongruent and incompatible with the world you’ve created (and entirely based on the whims and opinions of the sensitivity reader).
A sensitivity reader isn’t concerned with your story or setting, just “fixing” the “problematic” elements of what you’ve built. To the sensitivity reader’s morals, they find things that are wrong and that “need” to be corrected. Everything, each character, each worldbuilding detail, needs to be brought in line with the sensitivity reader’s morals and ideals of what the world should be, based on our world. Not the world your characters live in.
Like I said: their aim is often to apply a big old slop of their moral paint over whatever portrait you’ve constructed, censoring out the “problematic bits” in order to “fix things.”
And you shouldn’t be letting them do that. At all.
Look, I’ll acknowledge that there’s definitely sides of the “culture war” that take root in this, but as I’ve said before, I kind of detest both sides of the culture war at this point. So I’m not touching that topic.
Instead, I’m going off of what I’ve experienced with regards to sensitivity readers, who will do things like erase a culture from a book, or modernize it, in order to bring the book more in line with the sensitivity reader’s morals.
Before on the site I’ve talked about the dangers of letting your feedback fall victim to readers whose ultimate aim is “Hey, why don’t you write my book that I’m too lazy to write,” and well, a lot of self-described sensitivity readers tick a lot of those same boxes. Sands, as noted most of the time their qualifications seem to be “I have strong opinions on this subject” but actual questions of experience fall on deaf ears. They’re just there to make sure that your book conforms to what their view of the world, and culture, and everything else in their mind should be.
Yeah … Not really that great a draw, is it?
But here’s the thing: I am not saying that you shouldn’t get your book looked over before it gets published. You should! Just … not by a reader whose only stated goal is to find their subjects of moral outrage or disagreement and “bring your world into line with it.” That’s just … no. It’s flawed in the extreme.
Especially because it’s entirely based on opinion. And that’s the largest area where “sensitivity readers” should raise a red flag: They’re based on opinion, not fact.
Instead, have your book read by an expert. Or experts, if possible. People who research, work in, or understand areas of your book that you want checked.
For example, let us say that you’re writing a book with a protagonist that has a bad leg and spends much of their time in a wheelchair, or on crutches. It would be a good idea to find someone else—or even multiple someones—who understands what that entails and what that is like. You could find them before you’ve written the book, to ask them (politely, mind) what writers may often get wrong about writing a character that is wheelchair bound or on crutches. Or you could find them when the book’s draft has been written, and ask them to read through the draft and point out any incongruities they find.
Yes, you read that right: Make them an Alpha Reader! Well, ask them to be an Alpha Reader. Put out a call for the topic you want to make sure you handled correctly!
As the title of this post states, get an expert! Are you writing about a topic and worried you’re missing details or not portraying some aspect of it correctly even after you’ve done your research? Find someone who is knowledgeable about the topic, be it from years of hands on experience, a doctorate, or some other means, then the may be able to offer good feedback on your draft. If possible, get two or three experts!
Now, rules of logic and forethought still apply. For example, there’s a prominent historian that I wouldn’t risk handing a draft to because they’re known for being viscously unkind to anyone that disagrees with their own view of history—even as some of it looks very rocky indeed—to the degree that they have used their position to drive other historians to tears and out of the field for disagreeing with them. That’s probably not someone you want to hand your draft to if you’re saying anything that disagrees with their view of history.
There are also experts that have a tendency to think that because they’ve mastered one discipline, they’ve mastered all of them, and you may find that the doctor you asked to read your manuscript to check on accurate depictions of logging not just replying to that, but also with regards to finance in the book … and making very odd statements or even disagreeing with another expert who you brought on board to to check that topic.
In other words, no expert is perfect, and sometimes you’ll have to check to make sure they’re the expert you want or that they stay in their discipline. But even with those cautions, that’s still far preferable to someone whose only goal is to apply their moralizing over your work.
Look, we want our stories to be the best stories they can be. So even when you’re doing the research and doing what you can to make everything work, finding an expert of some kind to serve as a “test reader” and offer feedback on what you may have gotten right and wrong can be a very strong tool, and it’s one that we as writers should make use of.
Now, I can hear one last concern from some of you. “But how can I find an expert?” some are asking. After all, you’re just a writer, and why would they give you attention?
Here’s the thing though. As I’ve noted before on the site, a lot of people care about their jobs and their passions. Sometimes they overlap. And if you happen to find one of them and say “Hey, I’m writing a book and it’s got chapters that are about your passion, that thing you got a degree in. Would you be willing to read those chapters and offer feedback on what I did or didn’t get correct?”
Note that I said “chapters” there too. They don’t have to read the whole thing, just the bits that they have experience with. But in any case, you may be surprised how many people will be pleased to help, glad that you’re taking the time to get things right, and will take a look at what you’ve written.
This applies to any subject, from anthropology to culture to history to science and math. You can find experts on everything. And in the vein of “Always do the research!” if you’re concerned that you may not have accurately written or portrayed something properly, track one, two, or more down and ask them to take a look at what you’ve written!
Now, on to one aspect of this I haven’t brought up yet: what about delicate subjects?
See, this what sensitivity readers were initially supposed to be concerned with. When the idea of a “sensitivity reader” was first floated around the web, it was to make sure that a book didn’t go overboard on subjects that could be controversial or disheartening for some people. For example, writing about a deeply depressed character can be very dark indeed, and writers didn’t want to go too dark while still accurately portraying the struggle of a protagonist who was deeply caught struggling against their own psyche.
However, somewhere between that desire and the market, something got lost. See, the expert for that kind of book is twofold: It’s someone with an education in dealing with depression … but it’s also the target audience. And often the modern “sensitivity reader” isn’t the audience a book is aiming for at all.
Look, there are delicate subjects out there to be tackled. Stories reflect life, and life is often messy. But going back to the experience that prompted this whole post, the proper way to deal with it isn’t to bury it.
Yes, we can tone things down. We can adjust our approach. But do so for the right people, ie the ones who are going to be reading your book. Which often isn’t a modern sensitivity reader, but should be your audience.
If you’re worried about mishandling a delicate subject, talk to experts, and talk to your audience. Find out what they expect. Find out what they have issues with.
In a way, that makes everything we’ve discussed today an extension of what most writers should already be learning. Not just to always do the research, but also to know what your audience is looking for, and who you’re writing to.
There are dark, grisly horror stories out there that are full of blood, gore, and gruesome imagery. However, that audience expects that. A slice-of-life Rom-com audience, however, likely will not be expecting that.
But you don’t need a sensitivity reader to tell you that. Just a check of your audience will. Or some pre-reader exposure.
But getting back to delicate topics, experts and knowing your audience expectations are the best way to deal with them. And if you’re worried that you might be dabbling in things you don’t understand the depths of, you can always make a light pass, then get the experts, followed by the audience, to give you feedback later, when the time comes to edit.
Ultimately, the aim is to create a good book or story, a world that resonates with and draws in the reader. And we can address delicate subjects while still doing that.
And well, that’s pretty much it. To those of you who lit torches, expecting to burn me at the stake, well … Some of you still might be angry. But I stand by what I’ve said: Sensitivity readers often use a single moral brush based on their moral worldview, and that really isn’t very useful to anyone unless you’re looking to write something that preaches to that choir.
So instead, preserve the culture, morals, and world of your book, and get an expert instead. Find someone who understands the topic you’ve written about through personal experience or education, and then ask them to go over the areas of the story where that research is in place. Or ask them to read the whole thing! Their feedback could be valuable!
Ultimately, you want your work to be read by people that are going to help improve it. And that isn’t going to be someone whose goal is to override characters, people, or setting with their own idea of what morality should be. It’s going to be someone who understands the context, or the issues you’re attempting to tackle. Someone who has knowledge or experience with the concepts you’re tackling.
Now, one last aside: I do realize that some people defend sensitivity readers by noting “But they are an expert! Sometimes!”
And “sometimes” they might be helpful. But more often than not, what I see being declared with sensitivity readers is akin to a bludgeon of “modern ethics” painted over someone else’s portrait.
An expert, on the other hand, is there to see that something was portrayed with accuracy.
So don’t get a sensitivity reader for your story. Get an expert. Get your audience. Don’t paint over, expand and expound! Craft something unique.
Yes, delicate matters will come. Work through them carefully. Consider what your audience wants, and again, don’t forget to use the resources at your command to find an expert, doing the research to make sure you get things right.
Craft something amazing. Alien cultures, bizarre—to us, perhaps—dinner dishes, struggles with foes external or internal. Paint with an array of colors.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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