You've written the draft, edited the draft, and even had the draft beta read. But you have a feeling (or even a good idea) that something or someone might not translate well for some readers. Will a sensitivity reader be helpful?
Writing about characters or cultures outside your own can be intimidating...and even scary. We all remember the American Dirt debacle from 2020 and the ensuing PR nightmare that the author, Jeannine Cummins; her publisher, Flatiron Books; and even the venerable Oprah, had to navigate. It's a tough spot that no writer (or anyone really) wants to be in, especially when good intentions were involved.
And while I did just use a terrifying example of why so many writers and publishers employ sensitivity readers (or authenticity readers or cultural consultants), I'm here to tell you that hiring a sensitivity reader out of fear is a good indication that the process is not a good fit for you.
So when is a good time to hire a sensitivity reader? Allow me to answer this question with 3 questions.
Question No. 1: Will my portrayal cause harm to my readers?
Readers will initially react to prose through the lens of their emotions and experiences. Take a moment to see your representation (e.g., an Indian character at an all-white boarding school who provides some diversity) from the readers' perspective.
Think about which readers will align with your intentions (e.g., a white student who might not be in contact with Indian students and will appreciate insight into students outside their culture).
Also think about which readers might not align your intentions (e.g., Indian students at all-white boarding schools who don't want to see themselves tokenized but rather seen and heard).
Seeing representation through the eyes of your readers can help you surmise if additional work is needed to add detail and nuance.
This is a great question to ask your initial beta readers as well.
Question No. 2: Are there gaps in my knowledge that might result in an inaccurate portrayal?
Think of it this way: If you aren't a brain surgeon but decide to write a scene depicting a brain surgery, it would make perfect sense to have a brain surgeon beta read your depiction. They'll be able to catch anything from the music played during the surgery to actual dialog they would have with a patient.
Now, let's say you had a brain surgery yourself OR knew someone who had had one and wrote that same scene with only your's or their experience, along with some secondhand research. Could you still write the scene? Sure! Just know that there still would be an obvious perspective and expertise missing.
Now let's say you have no experience whatsoever with brain surgeries or know a soul who had one and only relied on what you knew about them (possibly supplemented with research). Could you confidently write the scene? If the answer to this is yes, then of course! If the answer is no, then find yourself a brain surgeon.
Question No. 3: What is my gut saying?
If you ask yourself one question, it should be this one. Your gut actively is looking out for you — listen to her. At the end of the day, your story is your story. If your gut is telling you that an additional eye will benefit your story and help you do it better justice, then reach out to a sensitivity reader and ask them about their services.
If you'd like help answering any of these question or just to see if a sensitivity read is the correct fit for your manuscript, please reach out for a free 15-minute consultation. I'd love to chat!