How To Start Your Literary Career As A Sensitivity Reader

Did you know you can turn your passion for diversity in literature into a career? Here’s everything you need to know about becoming a sensitivity reader.

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If you’re invested in diversity and inclusion in publishing, you have most likely heard of an authenticity reader, more commonly called a sensitivity reader. There has been a growing demand for sensitivity readers as more people – readers and publishing professionals alike – wonder what authenticity means in literature and what it looks like in books. 

If you have ever found yourself reading a book and tripped over a line or phrase about a character that didn’t sound quite right, or found a character’s depiction lacking, sensitivity reading may be the career for you. Is it enough to simply have lived experience as a marginalized person? Is it enough to follow your gut when it tells you something’s wrong? How do you even establish credibility as a sensitivity reader? How do you convince people to hire you?

There isn’t one correct path to becoming a sensitivity reader, but some methods are more effective than others. As you begin, it’s best to think of yourself as any other freelance editor and use freelancer strategies to help you build your professional persona and entice writers to hire you. Here is what you can expect to learn from this article:

  • What is a Sensitivity Reader?
  • How to Establish Yourself
  • Advertise Your Services Efficiently

What Is A Sensitivity Reader?

What Sensitivity Readers Do

Sensitivity readers are a type of editor that writers and publishings can call on during the publication process. Sensitivity readers are slowly becoming a regular part of the industry, thanks to an increased concern for accurate and authentic storytelling.

Writers employ sensitivity readers for the same reason they use more traditional editors: to check the content of their work. Instead of checking for inconsistencies, however, sensitivity readers look for offensive content, like harmful stereotypes, biases, and other inaccuracies concerning marginalized identities. Depending on the book’s content and the sensitivity reader’s specialty, a writer might hire multiple sensitivity readers for the same project.

Qualifications for a Sensitivity Reader

There is no set list of requirements to become a sensitivity reader. Sensitivity readers can come from different backgrounds, career fields, and education journeys. The only necessary trait for a sensitivity reader is being able to read for inaccuracies, biases, and other insensitive comments against marginalized groups in literature. Many sensitivity readers read for an identity they share, like ethnicity or sexual identity, but they can also read for a certain circumstance (like incarceration), or event (like The Apartheid in South Africa).

These are some of the common identities sensitivity readers specialize in:

  • Race/Ethnicity (African American, Asian American, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, Appalachian, etc.)
  • Queer 
  • Disabled
  • Neurodivergent
  • Economic standing
  • Citizenship Status

While these are the most common reasons for employing a sensitivity reader, there are many other scenarios a writer could call on a sensitivity reader for. For example, a writer may have a character with an eating disorder or a character dealing with loss, both of which are unique situations with specific vocabulary. You could argue that any lived experience or identity that the writer attempts to capture without experiencing it themselves calls for a sensitivity reader.

Three characters: a dark-skinned  princess with crutches on the left, a plus-sized brown-skinned woman in the middle, and an Asian prince on the right.

If you’re having trouble picturing when a sensitivity reader might come into play in the publishing process, let’s take an example from a recently published bestseller. In the book Yellowface by R.F. Kuang, a white woman gets a publication deal based on a manuscript about Chinese laborers during World War II. When discussing publicity for the upcoming book, an assistant suggests that a sensitivity reader checks the book’s content to make sure the writer didn’t unintentionally write anything offensive. 

While Yellowface is fiction, it is based on Kuang’s experiences in traditional publishing. Kuang herself has had her books read for representational accuracy – Babel features a diverse cast of characters, including a Muslim Indian man, a Haitian woman, and a Chinese immigrant adopted by a British white man. While Kuang could use her experience as a Chinese American to write about the Chinese character, she couldn’t extend her identity to the other two, which is why she had readers from those diasporas check her work.

Editorial Style Guides

One part of editing is the crucial skill of making changes to a work without compromising the author’s original style. While editing a writer’s text, an editor may develop a style guide to ensure they abide by the original tone of the work and do not encroach on their suggested changes.

What if a sensitivity reader finds that the writer’s portrayal of a marginalized character doesn’t match the rest of the story? How does a sensitivity reader make suggestions to fix these errors without offending the writer? More importantly, how does the editor make suggestions that pay respect to the character’s identity and the author’s style?

These can be tricky waters to navigate, but they are made easier with the help of steadfast references. Here are some resources for you to keep in your arsenal as an editor:

Some companies also offer courses for sensitivity readers who are starting out. Some of these courses give you a certificate when you finish, which you can display on your professional profiles as a testament to your skill. There are also some courses you can take for free – like the email one posted above – but many online training programs are paid.

If you encounter backlash to some of your suggestions, here’s something to keep in mind: you’re only suggesting changes. At the end of the day, it’s the writer’s call on what to keep, cut, or alter. Even though you’ve been hired for your expertise, the writer can decide to reject your edits.

Topic-Specific Resources

Many national and international organizations for marginalized communities have compiled resources for writers, editors, and journalists to reference in their work. By looking at the websites of the following organizations, you’ll find reliable language tools that abide by the desires of specific communities:

This is not an exhaustive list of all the reference tools available, but they are a good place to start. While these organizations offer guides for writing about these communities, every individual will have their own unique experience. These guides don’t exist to counteract those unique experiences – instead, they are a way for people outside those communities to navigate their narratives with a foundational sense of understanding.

A note: Salt and Sage, the editing company that published How to Write Black Characters, has other incomplete guides on their website.

Choosing a Topic

Many sensitivity readers list more than one identity they read for when advertising their services. While a writer may ask one sensitivity reader to read for multiple topics, a reader having a specialty in one topic doesn’t give them the authority to read for all topics. For example, if a writer has a character who is Black and Deaf, it would be in the writer’s best interest to have one sensitivity reader who can read from a Black experience and one who can read from a Deaf experience.

When deciding what topics to choose as your specialty, it’s best to go on your own lived experiences. Me, for example, I am a queer Black woman, but I’m also a biracial Black woman who lived with a single white parent. These are important layers that influence my experience in society and will also impact how a character moves through a story.

Some writers may choose to hire multiple sensitivity readers for the same specialty. Do not take this as an attack against your skills or your experience. The whole point of sensitivity readers is that identities aren’t monolithic, which is why stereotypes are so harmful. Even if another editor is reading for accuracy of say, depicting a Black male teenager, their perspective will be entirely different from yours because their lived experiences are different from yours. A writer may want more than one perspective on a character, so they might hire more than one reader for the same topic.

How to Establish Yourself in the Industry

Build Your Network

Many sensitivity readers work as freelance editors. As a freelance editor, you are a contracted worker who doesn’t report to a specific company or employer. The advantage of freelance work is that you can set your rate and choose your clients, but it is harder to establish yourself because you don’t have the same credibility as working for a publishing house.

However, freelance editors are not completely cut off from publishing houses. It’s not uncommon for publishers to contract sensitivity readers for a specific project. But, more often than not, writers are the ones hiring sensitivity readers. With that in mind, it makes sense to establish yourself through channels that authors and writers will have access to, rather than focusing on marketing yourself to publishing houses.

In a guest post on The Fussy Librarian, author and sensitivity reader Patrice Williams Marks suggests starting by offering your services for free to friends, acquaintances, or fellow authors if you’re working on a writing project of your own. While you won’t bring any income in from taking on clients pro bono, you will be able to build your portfolio and your network at the same time. By offering free services, you’re acknowledging that you’re still in the fledgling stages of your career, but getting meaningful practice that you can use to bring in paying clients.

Remember, it takes time to build up credibility, especially with something as nuanced as identity and representation within literature. Don’t be discouraged if progress seems slow-going. It’s more important to establish yourself the right way rather than the quick way.

Advertise Your Services Efficiently

Use the Internet to Your Advantage

Along with taking advantage of the links in the previous section, it will be in your best interest to build a community with your fellow freelancers. As you set up your profile, take note of other freelancers with similar specialties and reach out to them on different platforms to build your network.

A digital illustration of a website page with profiles for different people.

The first place to start is X, formerly known as Twitter. X has a large number of publishing professionals, from writers to agents to editors. Having an account dedicated to advertising your services and the kind of projects you’re looking to take on lets people know you are open for work. It also lets you stay tuned in to the latest developments in the industry, like what types of projects agents are looking for and what writers are working on.

Another site worth pursuing is Blue Sky, which has recently launched as an alternative to X. As a platform, Blue Sky has a similar site design but fewer paywalls, making it a promising site for early career professionals. 

As you network and gain more connections, you may get invited to join Slack or Discord channels for other freelance editors. Or you may even feel inclined to start your own. Platforms like Slack and Discord provide a more guarded, organized way of having discussions and sharing resources, but they aren’t as easily made as social media accounts. Consider which route is the best for you based on where you are and where you want your career to go.

Something to Keep in Mind As You Start Your Journey

Being a sensitivity reader is delicate work. Despite the increased call for diversity in the past decade, the publishing industry is still figuring out the best strategies for improving diversity and inclusion. As a result, industry professionals are still figuring out how sensitivity readers fit into the publishing world, which results in some pushback; there are some authors who question if sensitivity readers are even a necessary part of the publishing process.

Don’t let the uncertainty of the profession discourage you from pursuing your goals. Sensitivity reading is a burgeoning subset of editing that is making books a more welcoming place for all readers. As a centuries-old career field evolves to suit the people it serves, there are bound to be growing pains. But there is good news: you’re not alone. These growing pains are happening because there are so many people – readers and publishing professionals alike – who understand sensitivity readers deserve a legitimate place among other editors.

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