Sensitivity Readers: Useful Fact-Checking or Restrictive Censorship?

Today I got the latest edition of Writer’s Digest. As I was perusing and generally avoiding working on my critical response due next week, I came across an interesting article about a publishing trend which involves hiring “sensitivity readers.” Needless to say, I was intrigued to learn more.

What are sensitivity readers? Mandy Howard, who wrote the article published in Writer’s Digest, was kind enough to provide a definition from Writing in the Margins, an online database of sensitivity readers: sensitivity reading is editing for “issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page” (Writer’s Digest, January 2018, p. 8).

With this definition in mind, I’m going to turn to an aspect of the article which, admittedly, bewildered me. Namely, a passionate debate about the role/appropriateness of these specialized beta readers has be sparked with #diversity, #thoughtpolice, and #ownvoices.

The debate really shouldn’t surprise me. After all, everyone has a different opinion on everything. (I dare you to ask the question “Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?” in my household. You will get three distinct, passionate, and articulately-argued answers.) Still, my personal view of the matter made the debate seem unnecessary to me.

Here are the three sides of the argument:

  1. #diversity: These are the readers and writers who support people at all stages of the manuscript’s development hiring sensitivity readers. Their argument is that it is just another kind of fact-checking. After all, if you are writing from a perspective which is not your own, you are most likely to get something wrong. Don’t want egg on your face because you misidentify a Muslim woman’s garment, right? And what if you inaccurately described how a deaf student interacts with his professor? Nobody’s perfect. If we’re going to include diversity in our works, we have to make sure that we do it right.
  2. #thoughtpolice: These critics of the concept believe that sensitivity readers suppress creativity and expression. Howard points out that ptheir argument often falls back on the claim that classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin would not have been written the way they were under such insistence on political correctness because they portray these groups so negatively. One Washington Post letter to the editor which Howard references even compares sensitivity readers to censors.
  3. #ownvoices: This hashtag arises from more critics of this concept, but they don’t criticize it for nearly the same reason as #thoughtpolice. Their problem doesn’t seem to be with using sensitivity readers. Rather, they argue that people from these diverse groups need to write themselves. Shouldn’t we have books about African Americans written by African Americans? Books with transgender characters by transgender authors? How about books about Jews by Jews, or books about autistic characters by autistic writers? We need more diversity in our writers as well as our characters.

You have probably already guessed my position on the matter. I side most with #diversity and #ownvoices.

I think that sensitivity readers, like other beta readers and editors, serve as tools for revision and refinement. More importantly, they’re a research source. Just like you would search the Web, scour the archives, and interview experts (including those with first-hand experience), you can gain invaluable information about a different perspective from your sensitivity readers. Nothing enriches writing more than genuine human experience.

In regards to #ownvoices, I agree. We need more writers from diverse backgrounds. I’d much rather read about a perspective when written by someone with that perspective. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t write from different perspectives. We need to have both in order to represent realistically-diverse worlds in our stories. Sensitivity readers will ensure that we accurately portray perspectives which aren’t our own, and utilizing this resource is a step in the right direction.

For more articles from Writer’s Digest, be sure to visit You can also visit Mandy Howard’s website for more of her work and find your own sensitivity reader on Writing in the Margins.

What do you think about sensitivity readers? Are they fact-checkers or censors? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, but please remain civil. We welcome all view points so long as they are expressed respectfully.

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