‘Sensitivity Readers’: Proof Your Perception

The Editorial Freelancers Association holds beneficial talks given by experienced members of their organization throughout the country. Last week, veteran editor Sea Chapman gave a presentation entitled “Editing Fiction.”

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Sea Chapman, “Editing Fiction” presenter

Chapman’s talk provided a comprehensive view of developmental editing and the importance of the story at the heart of a text. For academic papers and reports, the ideas are often fully formed and need only copyediting or a review of internal logic at the sentence level. But fiction is a bit of a different beast.

Fiction works best when it is able to immerse a reader in the world it has created. Plot holes and inconsistencies break the illusion, ruining the experience for the reader. Enter the developmental editor, also known as advocate for the reader.

But even as the developmental editor works through a story’s inconsistencies, some problems may persist outside of the developmental editor’s realm of expertise. Chapman voiced concerns regarding a particular science fiction project she felt used racially coded language and characterized an alien species in racially coded and problematic ways. However, she felt she did not have the authority to advise properly on the situation and therefore referred the author to a ‘sensitivity reader.’

What is a sensitivity reader? “Part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors,” Katy Waldman describes in a piece for Slate. This answer is not only accurate but informative—writers may want to write certain characters but may not execute those representations adequately. At best, these shortcomings appear as heavy-handed clichés; at worst, they are harmful characterizations that reinforce negative stereotypes.

Sensitivity readers become an important test-audience that can point out where certain representations don’t ring true. If a writer is employing these stereotypes or misrepresentations because of the limits of the narrator’s character, that’s one thing—and the author will be able to defend their choice and put this decision into words—but other misrepresentations are sheer oversight.

Chapman acknowledges some writers wish to correct these errors and simply didn’t know they had made them, while others remain stubbornly insistent on keeping uncalled for misrepresentations. She says an editor must know when to pass on a project because of irreconcilable differences between editor and author.

Sensitivity readers have become a great tool for both writers and editors—effectively mediating the conversations about difficult subjects and helping the writer to avoid alienating a potential audience.

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