What’s A Sensitivity Reader, And Do You Need One?

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We live in divisive times. As boundaries between ethnicities, nationalities, social classes, sexualities, and genders are chipped away, the old norms of personal, national, sexual, ethnic, and economic identification and organization must be reevaluated. This is, unsurprisingly, a messy, dramatic, sometimes unpleasant, but ultimately necessary process, and the results impact everything – including publishing.

In 2018, Amélie Wen Zhao decided to cancel the publication of her debut YA novel, Blood Heir, which had been due to be published with Delacorte, because early reviewers denounced the novel as ‘blatantly racist.’

Zhao isn’t the first writer to have delayed or cancelled publication in the face of Twitter condemnation. In 2016, Keira Drake’s The Continent was described as ‘racist garbage’ and had its publication delayed for two years while Drake rewrote it; Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch found its Goodreads page flooded with negative reviews due to its apparently bigoted content; and, in February of this year, Kosoko Jackson canceled publication of A Place for Wolves. Tamera Cook, the especially furious Goodreads reviewer who kicked the whole controversy off, described A Place for Wolves as:

[a] book about American ‘boys cuddling’ […] set during a genocide, where the moral of the story is ‘Hey, nothing is black and white, and a lot of those victims did awful things too, and maybe they sometimes had it coming.

– Temera Cook, Goodreads review

Ouch. Now, maybe you’re a YA writer set to face off against these stern-faced gatekeepers. Maybe you’ve incorporated historical elements or have tried to tackle some prickly subjects relating to race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. How do you ensure you’ve walked the line? How do you avoid verbal crucifixion?

The first step is to take a deep breath and quash any sense of affronted self-righteousness you may feel in response to this modern phenomenon. I’m trying very hard to avoid getting political here, but suffice to say that launching into noble monologues about free speech or Voltaire or 1984 or ‘political correctness gone mad’ isn’t going to change the situation. Whether this type of reader reaction is good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, it’s a fact of modern publishing, and that means it’s time to be practical.

And, in this case, being practical might mean looking into hiring a sensitivity reader to go through your manuscript. But what is a sensitivity reader? What do they do? Isn’t this all new-age nonsense? Let’s find out.

What are sensitivity readers?

A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a manuscript with the express purpose of identifying and questioning plot elements, characters, language, and tropes that come across as inauthentic, lazy, stereotypical, or downright offensive. Typically, sensitivity readers are brought in by authors who are trying to write about a culture to which they don’t personally belong – for example, a white American woman might hire an African-American sensitivity reader to check her novel about a black man growing up in Harlem, or a Chinese man might hire a middle-aged British lesbian to check his story about growing up queer during the UK miners’ strike.

Sensitivity readers can be friends, colleagues, internet strangers, or professionals. Perhaps you have a gay friend willing to look over your story about the Stonewall riots, or perhaps your publisher has an in-house sensitivity reader whose job it is to run a fine-toothed comb through your text. Either way, they’re not out to censor your writing, and they’re not looking for excuses to scream, “Ah hah! Describing a Native American’s eyes as ‘almond-shaped?’ I knew you were basically Hitler!” before hurrying off to spread righteous indignation on Twitter.

Indeed, ‘sensitivity reader’ is a rather unfortunate title that may contribute to the outrage sometimes provoked when this role comes up; it suggests that readers are all delicate, sensitive flowers too fragile to have their preconceptions about the world questioned, but that’s not what’s going on at all. It’s not readers that sensitivity readers protect; it’s writers and, more importantly for those who’re putting down the cash, publishing houses. Publishers don’t want to worry about bad PR, and sensitivity readers can help minimize risk (if only by acting as shields post-controversy – “Hey, we hired a sensitivity reader, we tried!”)

A better term would be ‘authenticity reader’ or ‘cultural expert,’ because, ninety percent of the time, a sensitivity reader’s job isn’t to root out fascist dogwhistling – it’s to make your book better by ensuring your writing comes across as authentic, genuine, and humane. As a reader, which would you prefer to encounter in a YA book:

A lazy, hackneyed, clichéd African-American teen written by someone who, you’re forced to conclude, sourced everything they know about black American culture from nineties sitcoms and NWA


A well-rounded and realistic character whose defining features and characteristics are rooted in the lived experiences of actual African Americans?

It’s a no-brainer. Sensitivity readers aren’t about protecting fragile millennials; they’re about making books better.   

Their power is limited

It’s easy to read about professional sensitivity readers and fire-breathing Twitter/Goodreads armies and conclude that free speech is dead and that Orwell’s 1984 is yet again coming true. One gleeful commenter on the New York Times article about Zhou’s Blood Heir found his stride particularly eloquently:

That humming noise you hear is Ray Bradbury – author of Fahrenheit 451 – spinning in his grave. We used to be afraid of government censorship. No longer. We have met the censors, and they are us.

– badubois, The New York Times comments

That’s right folks, Stalin’s back, and he’s coming for our books!

Except that, actually, sensitivity readers aren’t stern arbiters stood with halberds crossed between stuttering, wide-eyed authors and literary stardom. They actually have no say in whether a book will be published or not, no power over the author, and nothing to threaten/bribe anyone with. They can’t choose to accept or reject manuscripts, the changes they propose can be stripped away by editors, and their advice is likely to be flatly ignored by commissioning editors and C-suite staff if sales predictions forecast wild success.

Sensitivity readers are just advisers – professionals that the writer can utilize or not, listen to or ignore, thank or insult. They’re not about to drag you to the gulag if you don’t make your warrior prince gender-fluid.

They’re editors

I’ve mentioned already that a sensitivity reader’s job is rooted more in ensuring authenticity than it is in shielding sensitive readers; when all is said and done, they’re editors, not censors. Now, I may be an editor, but don’t let that put you off believing me when I say that the more you get can an editor to look at your book, the better.

Here’s what YA author Anna Hecker had to say about her experience with her sensitivity readers:

Ms. Alter from the New York Times might be surprised to learn that, rather than censoring my book, my sensitivity readers made it objectively better. By pointing out places where I’d unwittingly succumbed to stereotypes, they helped me create richer, more nuanced characters.

– Anna Hecker, Writer’s Digest

Just like traditional editors, sensitivity readers trim back cliché, question stereotypes, flesh out two-dimensional characters, enrich settings, and provide fresh and detached perspectives. They’re trying to help, and by all accounts, they’re pretty good at it. As author James M. Tilton observes, many authors who doubt the value of sensitivity readers would jump at this type of service in any other area of research.

In just about every other way, writers as a group are notoriously obsessed with accuracy. We’re the folks who go down hours-long digital rabbit holes to iron out the most mundane details. And yet too many of us have a lower set of standards when it comes to our marginalized characters. It’s as if some authors care more about getting poisons right than representing black characters… All of my sensitivity readers have provided me with honest, courteous, and confidential revision notes. Many of these readers are authors themselves, and others are professional editors who had ideas as to how I could improve not only my representation but also my plot, pacing, and characterization. By engaging these sensitivity readers early in the revision process, I was able to make important and substantial changes to my manuscript before sending it to a publishing house. If I’d waited until later in the process, looking simply for a last-minute thumbs-up, I would have missed out on the opportunity to improve both my representation and my manuscript as a whole.

– James M. Tilton, ‘Sensitivity Readers! What Are They Good For? (A Lot.)’, Publishers Weekly

Yes, they’ll question your more controversial content – but that’s all they’ll do. Question. The most a sensitivity reader can do is make you reflect on why you’ve made a given choice in your writing. In doing so, they may prompt you to discover a better choice or they may just give you a preview of what you’ll hear in the court of public opinion. Either way, you stand to gain.

Fear not the sensitivity reader

Sensitivity readers are nothing to worry about and, regardless of your politics or your views on the matter, they should be recognized for what they are: another useful (and optional!) tool in the writer’s toolbox.

They’re uniquely equipped to pick up on flaws that may have passed your traditional editor by, and they can improve the authenticity of your story, world, and characters while broadening your potential readership and minimizing the number of people you inadvertently sideline or offend. In publishing, that’s as close to a win-win situation as you can get.

Have you used a sensitivity reader? What do you think of them? Let me know (sensitively) in the comments, and for more great advice on this subject, check out Why Authors Need To Take Care When Writing The Other Gender and What To Consider When Writing Mental Illness.


11 thoughts on “What’s A Sensitivity Reader, And Do You Need One?”

  1. If there is any group I have not offended in my novels, I consider them a failure. I like my readers to be people of the world and realistic. I do not suffer professional offendees well.

    1. I agree, have spent years writing a memoir; as time unfolds dialogue and thoughts change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Sensitivity engineering based upon the straw dogs of hell is useful idiots trying to control history by attempting to destroy the First Amendment. That some writers praise; kissing ass for the almighty buck is nothing new.

    2. Hi Cliff,

      Thanks for commenting. Art deals with ideas, and as such, as you observe, there’s always the risk of offending those who think differently. Of course, the important distinction is between offending people with one’s insight (the work of many great authors) and offending people with one’s ignorance. Sensitivity readers can be an excellent tool for avoiding the latter.

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. As Fred discussed in the article, the intent of a sensitivity reader is to aid in a writer’s understanding of viewpoints in which they’re not personally versed. In the best case scenario, this ensures that no group’s voice is accidentally smothered or grossly misrepresented by a more dominant ideology or culture. In the worst case scenario, there has yet to be a recorded case of a sensitivity reader aiding the government in creating a law designed to abridge free speech.


      1. Thanks for your reply. Although my past rant a bit rude, it is on solid footing.
        We’ve gone from chastising people over vulgar words, to vapors over forbidden ones.
        I’m a bit concerned how an inch stretches into hell.
        Creating laws is not the problem; it’s about creating a mindset, the shunning of those that disagree with a Marxist utopian manipulation.
        I remember, years back, when studying classical music, from out of nowhere, the professor says we must change BC and AD to his code of alphabetical feel-good-ism. I suspected then; trouble was brewing. Remember when actresses puffed and preened, they were actors, not actresses? They weren’t celebrating thespian goals; they were gelding the rose. Now the fickle beasts, have taken on the opposite approach.
        Why not change firemen to fireflies, or mailmen to mailbrides or garbageman to garbage…hags? Contrary to public opinion the name fishermen not meant to extol the virtues of men by dismissing the existence of women, although titles do represent job conditions that those seeking employment in that field should live up to, not degrade. Little nom de guerre changes…how many sexes are there, I’ve lost count; do I lose my job, banished into silence because I don’t memorize them? Mankind out; it is no longer considered a neutral word.
        Changing the meaning of words seems to have gotten a lot of perverse people thinking it’s a shortcut to infamy; it seems to work, but unfortunately, the more icons destroyed and replaced by euphemisms, the more freedom is lost not gained. Let us see what we will do with the word woman?

  2. Hi Bill,

    I’m afraid I have to disagree. All language is the process of creating euphemisms for icons – there are no ‘pure’ words that have always been, just the sounds and shapes we invented to express concepts, and those sounds and shapes, in turn, influence how we understand the concepts they represent. I agree this process is often shaped by the agenda of the speaker, but it’s a multifaceted struggle – no single school of thought is seizing language. Rather, every school of thought tries to insist on the vocabulary that best suits its worldview, and individual battles are won and lost.

    The process is natural and never ending, and inclusion of all the people using a language has always been a guiding factor. While ‘fishermen’ or ‘mankind’ may not be intended to marginalize women, intention is but one factor in how a word comes to be used and understood. Were authors known as ‘writerwomen’, I doubt the majority of male writers would shrug it off as sufficiently descriptive. We’d find it as silly and needlessly obtuse as many women have in the same position. And we’d be right to – it’s a poor tool for accurately describing reality, while a non-gendered term is the opposite.

    Similarly, words aren’t holy; where they’re no longer fit for the task – or where we’ve become aware that they never were – it’s only sensible to replace them with better linguistic tools. After all, new people are entering the world every day, and they have no more practical use for outdated professional designations than they do for ‘hark’, ‘wherefore’, or ‘forsooth’.

    To return to the specific subject of the article, part of a sensitivity reader’s job is to be aware of these nuances and help authors navigate them effectively, so as to keep their voice relevant in a world teeming with new ideas.


    1. Robert,

      So, let’s see if I have this right: sensitivity readers have good intentions in policing the language of writers based on the idea that all people of a marginalized group think alike (which is apparently not racist for some reason), but for everyone else intentions don’t count for much when compared to the “harm” done when words damage the feelings of some angry online mob?

      This argument makes sense to you?

      1. Hi Steve,

        No, I’m afraid none of that is right. You seem to be extrapolating the points raised far beyond their place in a cogent argument.

        First, sensitivity readers don’t police the language of writers. Sensitivity readers are hired BY writers (or sometimes publishers, in the traditional publishing route) to lend cultural expertise. Writers then choose when and where to apply these expertise, as they would with any expert. If you consult with, for example, a scientist who tells you it would take six to eights months to fly to Mars with current technology, and you then depict it as happening in one hour under the same conditions, that’s entirely your choice, but you’re probably not going to be taken seriously by the type of reader who values scientific realism. Likewise social and cultural concepts.

        I should perhaps note that no-one is suggesting every writer be paired with a sensitivity reader. Like any other expert, the idea is that they’re an available resource, and the intent of the article is to describe what they do once sought out.

        Second, there’s no assumption that all people of a marginalized group think alike, because awareness of a concept and one’s stance on that concept are different things. In the UK, DJ Danny Baker was pilloried by the public after comparing ‘Baby Archie’ to a monkey. The history of that specific imagery is well known, but Baker claims he didn’t understand that his comments would be taken in that context. If you believe his account, the issue wasn’t that he intended to say something people didn’t like, it was that he didn’t understand the cultural context around his statement. You may think Baker’s comments were fine, you may not, but in his case, he genuinely didn’t understand how his comments were likely to be received, and he wrote something under that false impression. A sensitivity reader wouldn’t have told him what to say, but they’d have tried to give him an accurate impression of how it could be taken. As Fred says in our article, ‘Yes, they’ll question your more controversial content – but that’s all they’ll do. Question. The most a sensitivity reader can do is make you reflect on why you’ve made a given choice in your writing. In doing so, they may prompt you to discover a better choice or they may just give you a preview of what you’ll hear in the court of public opinion. Either way, you stand to gain.’

        Finally, intention matters on a moral level, but it’s just one ingredient of how language is understood and how it affects the world on a practical level. Good intentions are a defense of one’s character when one causes harm, but they don’t erase the harm. If our moral outlook is the intent to keep from harming others, rather than the intent to be able to justify the harm we do, intentions have to be weighed accordingly. This would also apply to sensitivity readers, who I wouldn’t suggest are in any special group in terms of how their intentions factor into their effect on the world.

        I don’t think there’s space here to expound on the idea that words can do actual harm, but I would offer up an example. The comments under this article constitute a group of people who seem genuinely angry about the words that make it up, and they seem unified in the impression that our article shouldn’t have been published not just because they think it’s factually wrong, but because the ideas they have inferred from it are liable to contribute to some sort of harm. Similarly, as this article is a writer’s work, they all seem to agree with the idea that a writer should hear, and even be guided by, voices which are speaking from a different cultural perspective (in this case, their own.) Except perhaps for the preference of which ‘side’ is being heard by a given writer, I’m unable to parse the logic behind advising a writer why it’s culturally important that writers don’t heed cultural advice.


        1. Rob,

          I am not sure where you are getting these ideas, but they conflict with a number of accounts on sensitivity readers. I have come across numerous statements by authors who were told they had to use a sensitivity reader in order to be published, and were therefore pressured into taking the orders of a sensitivity reader as to what they could or could not write. This is clearly policing of authors.

          As for the efficacy of a sensitivity reader in preventing an angry mob from destroying the life of an author: they have no such talent. As Kosoko Jackson, a sensitivity reader who has found himself on both ends of the angry mob found out when he dared to publish a book that had the audacity to contain words someone found offensive. His status as a sensitivity reader was no protection from the mob, and his career is in tatters for it. The entire concept of a sensitivity reader is the blatantly bigoted notion that all people from a marginalized group think alike and what one finds offensive will offend the entire group. An argument that people pushing sensitivity readers would almost always reject.

          If our moral intent is to keep from harming others by never writing anything that offends anyone, we are holding ourselves to an impossible standard. A standard I doubt you would hold an African American author to when a Trump supporting bigot declares a book to have offended his delicate, tender sensibilities. But surely in this case intent is the deciding factor, whereas a an author offending a person of color’s intent is but a drop in the bucket compared to the torrent of hurt feelings that their evil words have caused, right?

          The harm caused by the words of sensitivity readers is quite real, a harm of censorship that vastly outweighs the harm a person can feel when reading a book they do not like. Sensitivity readers do nothing but reinforce the bigoted notion that all marginalized people think alike and that authors have some sworn duty never to offend anyone. The solution to the problem of online hate mobs ruining authors careers is for people point out that they do nothing but harm, that no one has a right to live a life free of offense, and the offense takers should just read something else. Saying the solution is for every author to pay a shake down fee to have their work policed in the hopes doing so will appease said angry mobs, when in reality nothing will, is not only naive but insulting.


          1. Hi Steve,

            Thanks for responding but, again, you seem to be extrapolating things I haven’t said. I think perhaps you’re lumping me in with discussions of this topic that you’ve seen elsewhere and refuting points I haven’t made, and which our article doesn’t make. No sensible person would suggest we have to never offend anyone (Fred speaks about ‘minimizing the number of people you inadvertently sideline or offend,’ with reference to intent), no-one has come close to saying that all marginalized people think alike (something I clarified in my last comment and can’t see any basis for in the article), and no-one is saying that ‘every author’ should hire a sensitivity reader (again, I went out of my way to make this clear in my last comment.) These concepts seem to have been imported from somewhere else, and I believe I answered them in my last comment.

            Obviously, I can’t really respond to the unspecified accounts you describe, as it’s impossible to check the facts, but publishers are businesses who set a number of conditions on authors. If a publisher won’t work with an author unless a sensitivity reader is consulted, that may annoy the author, but the sensitivity reader is as nefarious in that scenario as the person who checks the grammar and spelling or who designs the cover.

            You seem to be presenting hurt feelings as the ultimate harm caused by the written word, but in the same comment you highlight the damage done by online hate mobs. Art is impactful and it shapes our society – it is capable of both great benefit and great harm, both individually and in terms of the patterns it creates and reinforces. You seem to be describing a situation where petulant people gang up on defenseless artists to push a very specific and unnecessary agenda. I don’t think that matches up with reality.

            It should also be pointed out that just having access to the internet doesn’t remove one’s soul – if a person tells you that you’ve hurt them online, that doesn’t invalidate their observation. It’s not that there are real people who don’t care and online people who care but shouldn’t, there are just people affected by one’s work, which is what one is trying to do when one creates art. Therein lies the responsibility to do so from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance.

            Again, though, I’d bring you back to the closing point from my last comment. The above is a written work, you are offering a critique of it based in cultural values, but your argument is that writers shouldn’t have to listen to people who offer them cultural critique. You say that ‘no one has a right to live a life free of offense, and the offense takers should just read something else,’ but in this case, you’re the party who has taken offense. How does your current argument square with your decision to present it?


  3. No, I am responding to the comments made here and the article itself. The whole concept of a sensitivity reader and the outrage culture that produced it is that people (well, the right kind of people at any rate) have the right never to be offended, and it is the authors sworn duty to refrain from offending them.

    Which again comes to the point that a sensitivity reader has no power to intuit how anyone else will feel about anything. Yet that is exactly their job, based on the bigoted and ignorant assumption that all marginalized people think alike. A good example is the online crucifixion (as this article calls it) of Laura Moriarty, whose sensitivity reader was powerless to stop the torrent of hateful, petulant people ganging up on yet another defenseless author for the crime of wanton wrong think.

    Which, for the record, is a commonplace occurrence, as pointed out in the Guardian’s excellent article “Torn apart: the vicious war over young adult books”. If you are unaware of this reality, you are as ignorant as you accuse me of being. I would never say what anyone should or shouldn’t care about, but if you use your bruised fees fees as an excuse to destroy the career of anyone who dares to offend you, you are working to create a culture that celebrates harassment with the goal of destroying art by making artists too afraid to take risks.

    You should at least have the decency to be honest about that.

    As for your closing point, I have to ask, do you honestly not see a difference between fiction and non-fiction? What you are doing is making dishonest claims about sensitivity readers and venerating a culture of hate, shaming and censorship. This is equivalent to claiming there is no difference between an author writing a fictional work in which a group of scientists conspire to hide the truth about vaccines causing autism and someone presenting as a respected scientist writing a book claiming such a conspiracy is in fact real.

    Hope that clears things up.

    1. Hi Steve,

      I’m afraid not, but it does seem we’ve reached something of a conceptual impasse. The idea that anyone is claiming that all marginalized people think alike seems to be an article of faith that is persisting despite being entirely absent in the article or comments. Likewise, the idea that some people shouldn’t ever be offended – I don’t know what I can say but to assure you that I just don’t know anyone who holds that view, whether or not they think sensitivity readers have something to offer authors. It’s a compelling straw man, but as you pointed out in your first message, not the sort of thing anyone would really have as their position.

      As an editor, my goal is, of course, never to destroy art or discourage risk, but to aid authors in accurate and effective communication. Unfortunately, it feels like the position you assume I’m arguing from is eclipsing anything I can actually offer by way of explanation, so I’m afraid the above comments and the article itself will have to suffice.


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