How Sensitivity Readers Can Improve Your Work | Lex Academic Blog

A sensitivity reader resembles a maritime pilot, manoeuvring a writer through unfamiliar waters, helping them hone their language with the benefit of someone who knows the local reefs, rocks and shallows. As a specialist kind of editor, they might highlight racial profiling, stereotyping, ableism, and unwitting cultural appropriation, offering the benefit of their lived experience along with professional editorial expertise.

Writers and publishers are split on the merit of sensitivity readers. Do they offer valuable perspectives, helping writers to avoid causing offence? Or do they represent a kind of censorship? The issue of language and its policing is contentious, but it is misguided to characterise sensitivity readers solely in political terms. Sensitivity readers offer a way for us to discuss our language, take its significance seriously, and to respect the people we write for as well as the stake they have in our words.

Trade publishers were the first to employ sensitivity readers, ostensibly to give writers the benefit of traditionally marginalised perspectives (or, more cynically, to defend publishers and writers from Twitter mobs). Some authors have embraced this attention. In 2016, for instance, Keira Drake’s young adult novel, The Continent, was derided on Twitter as ‘racist trash’. Embarrassed and ashamed, the author admitted her critics were right. She and her publishers sent the book to four sensitivity readers. Descriptions of ‘natives’ and ‘primitive’ people with ‘almond-shaped eyes’ were picked up as racist and inappropriate, as were other racist stereotypes colouring the fictional tribes of her world. And she built her story around a white girl who saved the ‘savages’. According to an article she wrote in the New York Times, her sensitivity readers suggested changes she was humble enough to take on board.

A second author, Kate Clanchy, had her work reviewed by a series of sensitivity readers more recently, in 2021. Her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, was initially well received. She even won the prestigious Orwell prize. After a while, reviewers on Goodreads began to accuse Clanchy of racism, which spilled over onto Twitter and gained momentum from there. Clanchy was asked to revisit her work, and went willingly into the process. But her editors’ comments, she thought, threatened to flatten her work, remove nuance, and bowdlerise her deliberately imperfect literary creations. Between them, readers would praise and criticise the same passages, contradicting one another. Clanchy decided to utterly reject their edits.

Dropped by her publisher, Clanchy was further vilified online. And Drake now faced attacks from two sides. One set of tweeters insisted she and her work were fundamentally racist and unfixable, and that she should commit suicide. Another set wrote her off as spineless for capitulating to ‘politically correct censorship’. Both women took reasonable positions in what reads like cynical attempts for publishers to appease internet trolls. As the scholar Debbie Reese points out, in a politically charged literary world, a publishing behemoth might use a sensitivity reader as a shield.

To properly consider sensitivity readers, we must move beyond the over-simplified discussions in mainstream media – discussions that are really more about publishers and people on Twitter than the writers and sensitivity readers themselves. Whatever our discipline, we are in the business of creating, framing, and communicating knowledge, of inventing significance and making meaning – aspects of our writing and scholarship that deserve the specialist attention a sensitivity reader can give.

The social semiotician Gunther Kress, working with the surgeon Roger Kneebone, coined the term ‘reciprocal illumination’ to encapsulate the relationships that might flower from our attempts to engage with audiences. When we speak of ‘engagement’, in other words, we should not simply think or ourselves as transmitting knowledge to passive recipients. We rather have a responsibility to engage our many publics in conversation. As educators, researchers and even storytellers, we have a duty of care to our readers – a relationship that goes well beyond the imperative not to offend our interlocutors. Sensitivity reading, in this context, helps us to pitch our work as part of a meaningful conversation, as opposed to shouting into the void; making connections between people and ideas as opposed to defending ourselves from their attacks, real or imagined.

Managed well, these conversations should lead to a mature and informed discussion about language. For her book The Facemaker, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris employed a sensitivity reader. The Facemaker tells the story of the surgeon Harold Gillies, the reconstructive surgery he pioneered during the First World War, and the soldiers whose lives he worked tirelessly to improve. As with Drake and Clanchy, Fitzharris was encouraged to adjust her language – using ‘typical’, rather than ‘normal’, for instance – and she fine-tuned her manuscript accordingly. But the value of the author–sensitivity reader relationship came from the changes in perspective that lifted her work, improving her scholarship.

Describing the horrific facial injuries sustained by the participants in early mechanised warfare, Fitzharris used the term ‘facial disfigurement’. This led to a valuable conversation about her words and how, as a professional historian, she might responsibly deploy them. ‘Disfigured’ is a negative expression, indicating a kind of disgust. A face disfigured is a face no longer complete, a broken human being – a sentiment reflected in the contemporaneous French expression les gueules cassées (‘the broken faces’) or German equivalent das Gesichts entstellten (‘the twisted faces’). Some might, her sensitivity reader suggested, be offended by the term ‘disfigured’. Perhaps ‘facial difference’ might be substituted. ‘Disfigured’, however, reflects the historical relationship Gillies’s patients had with the world – a society that went out of their way to hide them from view, that instructed them to work in the back of shops, to sit on the blue benches so others could easily avert their eyes.

Author and sensitivity reader arrived at a joint position and Fitzharris opted to use the term ‘disfigured’ despite its potential to offend – because it touches us in uncomfortable ways. As readers, we have to feel that discomfort, and come to terms with the way our society treated those with facial differences. Her sensitivity reader helped Fitzharris engage with this point, maximise its impact, and respectfully weave it into the tapestry of her book.

In other places, her sensitivity reader helped change Fitzharris’s perspective. Gillies imposed a mirror ban, which Fitzharris initially interpreted positively – the ban protected these men from the trauma of seeing their mangled features. But her sensitivity reader encouraged her to also think about how such a ban would have inadvertently made ‘disfigured’ patients feel that their faces were not worth looking at, or too horrific to contemplate. Such attention to detail requires more than lived experience.

The relationship between a writer and sensitivity reader should neither be motivated by a publisher’s defence reflex nor cancel culture, but by the responsibility of a writer to use language appropriately, rigorously, and respectfully. It is the privilege of a scholar to set the agenda and decide on the conversations that we, as a society, are having in all kinds of ways. And with this privilege comes a responsibility. As writers and academics, words are our stock-in-trade, and it is vital that we use the most appropriate ones.