Confessions of a Sensitivity Reader

  • Nov 21, 2019
  • 4 minute read

You have a great book.

You have written an awesome book.

And so it happens that you have written, let’s say, a transgender character.

They might be the protagonist, or their friend, their lover, their sibling… but you are not trans yourself.

You have done research: you’ve read trans activists; you’ve watched them on YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter; you are slightly aware of trans rights are in your area. Or maybe you have made up an entire magic system and/or worldbuilt universe that fits (or doesn’t fit) LGBTQ+ folks.

But you want do it right. You want to make sure this character is real, coherent, and not steeped in stereotypes and your own cis experience.

This is when we meet. Through S&S, through social media, the story continues with your awesome book in my hands, and a pen between my fingers as I read your work.

The first step is just reading: as an editor, as a reader, as a fellow writer.

I mark down the cool sentences, the nice language tricks, and the descriptions that make my heart tremble.

But I also mark down your missteps: the way you mention binders or underwear; the abundance of mirrors; the inner monologues that go on too far, for too long. It’s okay– this is what I’m here for.

Relax. You are here to learn, and I’m here to help–and, quite possibly, fall in love with your work.

Once I have read it all, I open two documents: one to write down impressions and do a simple book report, and the other one is your manuscript, where I will write comments next to the text, in classic old-fashioned editor work.

In the first document, I add background information: what are common misconceptions and why, and which ones are present in your work. I write what you did well, and what could be better.

The second document, which is the comments in your manuscript, is so you can check your manuscript and see–line after line, paragraph after paragraph–where everything is located: the great, the good and what can be improved.

As a Sensitivity Reader, here are some changes I’ve suggested before: In some stories, I might note that the bullying in the background is an easy stereotype, and has sometimes been overdone, which is something to keep in mind, especially depending on the genre of your piece.

In others, my suggestion may be to change a whole arc (which can easily include 40k words of story) because the focus on trans identity could use lightening up. If the focus of your story isn’t the characters identity–that is, if being trans is just a part of who your written character is, it’d be cooler to read about this whole other thing happening (that is, the plot) that can also have an impact of them.

As a Sensitivity Reader, I try to put into words what can only be lived, and to do so in a way that helps inform author empathy, so as to improve their characters and story. It’s not a lecture, but a conversation; and no single sensitivity reader has all the answers. We do our best to help.

We check resources, re-read books we have full of notes, and talk with some of our close friends (also trans). It is not an exact science.

What you receive might be ten pages of PDF and your manuscript with lots and lots of comments in colors. Remember that they are there to help you learn–just like we all do. but, if they are there, if you are paying us, is because you have to learn. We all do. We try to help you learn by treating your characters as carefully as if they were our own. And, believe me, you will do better, your book will be even more awesome, and you will touch hearts that will never forget your words.

Here are some small notes on what to have in mind when you write characters you know that will have to pass through SRs:

— Breathe.

-– Write with care, because we want to avoid intention harm, but don’t fear writing! If you do not write, we won’t have anything add, to discuss, or to suggest. Your story deserves to exist, and we’ll help you as much as we can. Please, write!

— Talk to your friends, meet people outside your bubble or comfort zone, and listen. Begin with listening.

— Don’t take our feedback, notes, and marks personally. We all have been raised in a world dominated by cis, white, straight able-bodied men. Sensitivity Readers also sin on other aspects we cannot control, so, believe me–nobody’s perfect! We’re learning, too. A sensitivity read is about what you can learn from us. It is not a test you need to pass, neither about your knowledge nor your worth.

— Use all you learn, and don’t give up on your book. Remember: you truly have something special to offer to the world. We want to read you! We want to hear your stories!

Remember: the whole S&S team is here, rooting for you.