Tuesday, October 18, 2016

SENSITIVITY READERS

Many say that you should only write about what you know, and others say you should write about what you want to know. I’m in the latter group.  I do stick with what I know, and know intimately, when it comes to the main character. This is essential for me even more when the story is written in first person, and the narrator is the main character.


But there are other characters, and they often come from other places, other faiths, even other times. Seen through the main character’s eyes-- the narrative voice remains an authentic observation of their “otherness.” But as readers are diverse, I always felt I should run a story with such characters by Beta Readers who would have known them intimately. 

One of my novels, set in the South, has a narrator. The narrator is an outsider, lands in the American South, and marvels at the difference of her northern California mind-set and the people and place she finds herself in. I ran many of the southern dialogue lines by a native of the specific area, and, once the second draft was done, I had the whole story read by my first Beta reader, a native of the American South.
This turned out to be insufficient. Another reader objected to the way a character spoke and acted. I revised, again. This time with a reader who was not quite from the same place in the south, but of the same race as the secondary character.


I have done similar things with other stories. I did not know there was a name for such readers, but I’ve learned. They are now called Sensitivity Readers. They will check the authenticity of voices and manners, because they know from the inside. At the same time, they will point out anything that strikes them as pointlessly offensive.

A simple internet search using this term will show not only that it’s established, but there are sites that hire such readers, vet them, and for a fee will connect writers to a specific need. I was ignorant that this was recognized and monetized, and had turned to friends or other writers with an exchange of reading their work-in-progress. I know what I don’t know, which is plenty, and I know feedback is invaluable.


In search of authenticity, I try to remember not to sanitize what real life sounds like. This is not about the PC police waving their badges.  At the very least, it is a good idea to run work by people of a different background and weigh their feedback. In the end the process is enriching well beyond the mining of my own mind.

11 comments:

  1. Mirka, it takes a brave writer to venture into new geographical and racial areas and the concept of Sensitivity Readers is stellar. I once wrote a terrible story about The Travelers of Ireland which was rightfully ripped apart by one of my instructors which caused me to do study abroad stint in Galway, Ireland which exposed me to real travelers who gifted me with their input of my stories about them. I learned by my mistakes and my willingness to have those most vested, critique my work. This was an excellent post. Thanks

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  2. I've never heard of sensitivity readers, but when I'm editing I often point out word usage that's not appropriate for a character because of location, age, whatever.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Yes, exactly that^. It's about authenticity.

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  3. Interesting. I've ran a story of mine by people not of the same background as my secondary character and they were more offended by some of the lines than my readers who relate to that character, so it does help.

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    1. I just saw this quotation on Donna O'shaughnessy's blog, from Stephen king:

      "If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway."

      I think the issue is one of authenticity and not so much who's offended, because someone somewhere will likely be. But as to how it relates to offensiveness, it is a matter of needless, pointless offensiveness. There's 'nuff of that out there already.

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  4. Haven't heard that term before, but in my experience, turns of phrase, colloquialisms, etc. can differ from county to county. I was chatting with a friend who lives about 50 minutes from me the other day about the word "snitch." She uses it the way I would use "snatch" - to grab something away. To me snitching is being a tattletale. Trying to get voices right is an endless challenge...

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    1. Indeed. That is our challenge.
      And if-- with all the checks-- we still use 'snitch' for 'snatch,' we can always say the character was raised in that other county...

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  5. I had not heard of sensitivity readers either, but it's definitely a good idea to have them check out the appropriateness of our writing when it involves those who have a different background than ourselves.

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    1. Here's just one link to such --

      http://writeinthemargins.org/sensitivity-readers/

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  6. I research a lot when I write something I'm not completely familiar with. I like to put manuscripts aside for months on end before revising and sometimes when I go back, I think, "Wow, I must have researched for weeks, because this sounds authentic." That's how I know I did a good job. If I question anything, I know I need to research more.

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  7. I'm another who didn't know of sensitivity readers. I probably should use a few with my WIP, it may be what's tripping it up. :)

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