Will Your Writing Change After Working with a Sensitivity Reader?
For the past seven years, Jane has authored a series of wildly successful young adult books. She has been praised in the past for her use of diverse characters. Her stories take place in the mythical kingdom of Murrzh, and her characters were a hybrid of multiple races.
Jane just completed her fifth book in the series after a two-year delay. Anxious to hear reactions from her audience, she released the manuscript to multiple beta readers for feedback and suggestions.
Jane knew the landscape had changed slightly in regards to writing diverse characters since her last release, but she was not prepared for what followed.
Minority beta readers took offense to some of her characterizations of what they perceived as black characters. They didn't appreciate how the characters of color were one-dimensional and full of stereotypes. Some of these beta readers took to Twitter to denounce the book even before it was released.
Jane did not see this coming and was left in shock at the response. All of her friends, family, and even the publisher had no issues with the book. Why did the beta readers?
Jane decided to push back the release date of the book while trying to figure out what went wrong.
Although this story is fictional, similar things have happened to many authors, with several even withdrawing their book after publication.
Who was wrong in this scenario: the beta readers, or Jane?
I would say neither. Jane was right, as she wrote what was familiar to her and had simply continued business as usual in regards to her books. She had never had any issues before, so why now?
The beta readers also were right to point out things that were offensive to them or harmful stereotypes that popped up in the book.
The hiring of one or multiple sensitivity readers – or diversity editors, as they are sometimes called – for Jane's books helped her view her work through a different set of eyes.
Take for example how Jane described one of her main characters:
Description: Charcoal skin, living in ghetto-like conditions, raised by a young grandmother who was always strung out and incapable of taking care of anyone.
Jane received a report from a sensitivity reader which commented on the character:
"Referring to only minority characters by their skin color (while not describing the default Caucasian character's skin color) defines them only by this. Stereotypes of young black grandmothers, poor living conditions and being on drugs were also used with most of your minority characters, creating harmful misrepresentations."
This may not have even been Jane's intention. She was simply writing what she assumed to be true. Even when writing a completely fictional world, the sensitivity reader gleamed examples from their own life.
Working with a sensitivity reader broadened Jane's view of people who were not like her. She knew it was her choice whether to make changes to her characters or not, but now she had the full picture.
Do authors lose anything creatively by working with sensitivity readers?
I would say that they gain far more than they lose. They are free to express themselves as they see fit, but now they have the critical knowledge and understanding that niche sensitivity readers bring to the project.
With sensitivity readers available to any content creator, they have made positive impacts on communities of color, little people, religious groups, the obese/plus size, LGBTQ+, etc. in how they are viewed and portrayed by society.
Do you think Jane made any changes? And if you were Jane, would you?