Sensitivity Readers vs. Expert Readers: What Is the Difference?
I am pleased to be picking up more sensitivity reads in the upcoming weeks. The money I earn will go toward hiring a professional editor, who will make my own voices YA historical novel the best that it can be. (Stay tuned for more info on its publishing plans.)
But with one of those sensitivity reads, I’m exchanging not money but an expert reading of my book. You may ask, “What is the difference between a sensitivity reader and an expert reader?”
On one level, a sensitivity reader is an expert reader. Sensitivity readers are specialists in the subject matter or characterization with personal experience of belonging to the marginalized group. They’re reading the manuscript for accuracy, authenticity, and freedom from the tropes or stereotypes that serve as shortcuts to complexity and truth. They’re making sure portrayals by outsiders don’t bring harm to readers within the group due to distortions, lies, cultural appropriation, or expropriation of intellectual property. It’s a tough job sometimes, because we’re exposing ourselves to false and hurtful tropes so others who share our backgrounds and experiences won’t have to.
I’m serving as a sensitivity reader for a manuscript about two sisters, one of whom is autistic and the other neurotypical. In contrast to many books of this type, which tell the story from the neurotypical sibling’s point of view and rely on either the caretaker trope (the nondisabled sibling, regardless of birth order, takes on the responsibility for a “less capable” disabled sibling) or the resentful sibling trope (the nondisabled sibling resents the time parents devote to the disabled sibling, or the bending of rules), this novel presents the point of view of both sisters. Along with avoiding the sibling tropes (not a given, but from what I’ve seen, less of a problem when both perspectives are included), that means I have to determine whether the autistic sister’s perception of herself and the world rings true. Other things I look at are the community surrounding the autistic protagonist and her family; while there may be people who don’t understand or accept her, we shouldn’t be treated to an entire community that has turned against her or turned their backs on her.
In return, this author is serving as an expert reader on my manuscript featuring a neurodiverse teenager who, along with two other teens, may have to escape from a totalitarian Communist country in Eastern Europe to avoid a much worse fate. While my expert reader grew up in a totalitarian Communist country and managed to escape, leaving family behind in the process much as my characters would have to do, this reading for accuracy and authenticity is not technically a sensitivity read. While he is Latinx and would be considered a member of a marginalized group in the U.S., it’s not the same marginalization that my neurodiverse protagonist or any others in the novel share. Having the misfortune to live in an unfree country does not in and of itself indicate marginalization, though most dictatorships past and present marginalize and persecute racial, ethnic, and religious minorities and LGBTQ+ and disabled individuals. Hence, the more general term of expert reader, but one with a personal connection to the story.
Other expert readers don’t share the personal experiences of the characters, but may be called in because of their academic training or professional work. For instance, someone asked me to be a sensitivity reader for elementary-age children who are anxious about active-shooter drills. Leaving aside the question of what kind of country would need to train children to survive mass murderers with automatic weapons coming into their schools, this sounds like a problem that would affect most young children, not ones specifically diagnosed with anxiety disorders. So I suggested instead that the writer consult a school psychologist — an expert who has training in working with schoolchildren in general in crisis situations. Similarly, in an own voices picture book on which I’m collaborating with another author with more experience in writing successful picture books, we’ve consulted an expert reader who has helped us with standard procedures to follow when an autistic child gets into a fistfight with a classmate.
If you’ve wondered what a sensitivity reader does, and what the difference is between a sensitivity reader and an expert reader, I hope this helps. Please feel free to ask questions below. And if you’re looking for a sensitivity reader on neurodiversity for your book — from picture books to adult — I’m here to help. Leave a message on my contact page or contact me via Facebook or Twitter (Twitter handle: @LMillerLachmann).
Fantastic post! I appreciate this distinction. I wish more writers would pass their work through either (or both) of these professionals’ eyes.
I am an editor with expertise in journalism with iver two decades experience in mainstream media newsrooms (CNN, AP). Based on this article, I would say that I could serve as an Expert reader on any topic related to journalism and media. Similarly, I would say that I could serve as a Sensitivity reader for fiction and NF that takes place in a newsroom and/or that has a reporter as protagonist or other character. Right? Thank you.
Good question, Jennifer! I think in both cases, you would be an expert reader rather than a sensitivity reader. Your expertise in helping a writer with a reporter as a protagonist comes from personal experience, but it isn’t an issue of sensitivity in portraying a individual who has experienced marginalization due to race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. However, if you were a disabled reporter, and someone was writing a novel portraying a reporter with a similar disability, then you would be offering your services as a sensitivity reader to make sure the portrayal was authentic and free from problematic tropes and stereotypes.
Lyn, great post on the difference between the two. I have served as a sensitivity reader for a number of manuscripts. But I don’t consider myself to be an expert reader. Can you discuss the criteria for this category of reader?
Hi, Linda! An expert reader is one who has the academic background or work experience to vet a manuscript for accuracy in depicting that experience in a work of fiction or nonfiction. So, for instance, in the comment above, she’s an editor for mainstream media and she could serve as the expert reader for a novel that has a character who works in the newsroom of a large media outlet. Another example would be a book set during a historical era, using a reader who’s a historian specializing in that era.
That makes sense. I’ve never been asked to be an expert reviewer. I imagine that experts have to keep up with the going trends also, since things change so rapidly.
Except if it’s something that happened in the past. 🙂
Lyn, I am reading a peer to peer YA about a white girl coming of age in a family she discovers is racist and sexist. I struggle with removing any of her naive assertions or her parents and grandparents racist comments because this informs the story and why she is having a tough time coming to terms with what she believes in contrast to her family’s obvious prejudices. How is this handled in sensitivity reading? Is it a bad thing that needs to be addressed or is it the honesty and the struggle that makes the story interesting? Thanks.
That’s a great question, Barbara! Redemption arcs featuring white protagonists growing up in racist families are some of the most difficult character arcs to portray. Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch is a case of a redemption arc that has received a lot of criticism, in large part because the protagonist’s journey to question the racism of her elders goes on too long, so the racist attitudes and statements are what dominate the story. Some of the ways that authors have developed effective and sensitive redemption arcs are by using other secondary characters to question a secondary character’s racism right away, or having the protagonist note the illogic of racist comments and question them in her mind if not out loud. The two historical novels I’m reviewing for The Pirate Tree this week are excellent models for how this is done. In Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky, a hotheaded older brother is the one who expresses racist beliefs, and his parents and his younger brother call him on it. In Kip Wilson’s biographical verse novel White Rose, Sophie Scholl comes to question Nazi beliefs about Jews when she sees that her Jewish friend looks more Aryan than she does.
Great minds think alike Lyn! We also wrote an article about this that was published in Horn Book. Here’s the link: https://www.hbook.com/2018/10/creating-books/publishing/sensitivity-readers-matter-call-something-else/
Congratulations on the Horn Book article! I enjoyed reading it, especially since I was the targeted expert reader you cited in the piece. I’m so glad you found my comments useful and took them to heart. My observations about the need to mention the autistic brother in preschool also illustrates the way in which expert readers have to be sensitive to the broader social and political context, because something that may not have been an issue at one point in time can do harm to individual readers or be used as propaganda to hurt the group as a whole in another.