Do You Need A Sensitivity Reader?

I’ve done a lot of research in my writing career. That has meant finding reliable sources in the UK. I’ve consulted police professionals, clergymen, solicitors, coroners, auction houses, Scottish clan societies, museum curators, various university professors, veterinarians, cardiologists, the head of the National Trust, and the owner of a vintage clothing shop. Now for the first time, I’m engaging a sensitivity reader.

What is a Sensitivity Reader?

Here’s a definition I like:

Sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.” (Understanding Publishing, reedsyblog, 24 June 2019).

That’s helpful, but there are all kinds of cultural inaccuracies and stereotypes in the publishing world. I’ve been offended myself (or maybe grieved is a better word) by inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of certain social groups. So should authors hire sensitivity readers in every case where they’re writing about cultures and life journeys they haven’t experienced themselves?

I can’t answer that complicated and controversial question, but I can give you my thoughts.

Why I’m Using a Sensitivity Reader For This Book

The Kate Hamilton series is set in the UK, mostly in Suffolk. But in my current WIP, my protagonist, Kate, travels to Devon to trace the provenance of a blood-stained dress said to have belonged to a Victorian lacemaker suspected of murder. If authentic, the dress will become the centerpiece of a new exhibit, “Famous Crimes in Devon’s History,” at the fictional Museum of Devon Life in Dartmoor. As she investigates, Kate uncovers a mysterious connection with a nineteenth-century Romani family, the Squires, who arrived in Dartmoor every spring to help with lambing and stayed until The Drift, the annual autumn round-up of Dartmoor ponies.

Obviously, this called for research. I love research, but what I found was confusing. For starters, what is the accepted name for the people who left northern India in the 11th century and spread westward into Europe? Should they be called Roma, Romany, Romani, Gypsies, Travellers? There is no agreement, I discovered, even among the Roma themselves [I chose Roma and its adjective, Romani]. To make matters worse, very little has been written about the Romanichal, the branch of the Romani people who settled in the UK. They kept to themselves, didn’t mix socially with gadjos (non-Roma), and didn’t often record their history in writing. That means the information available in print and online has been written almost exclusively by outsiders. The accounts of Romani life that do exist are contradictory, often condescending, stereotypical, and filled with inaccuracies. So what is the truth, and where could I find it?

Where Did I Find A Sensitivity Reader?

I started with The Romany & Traveller Family History Society (, an online group that helps Romani people trace their ancestry in the UK. When I asked if someone would be willing to answer questions, they graciously agreed. Not only that, they pointed me to a retired university professor, a Roma himself, with an impressive academic reputation. When I asked him if he would be willing to read my manuscript and alert me to inaccuracies and insensitivities, his answer was: “That’s my responsibility.” He has already been incredibly helpful, and when my manuscript is finished (soon, I hope), I’ll send it to him for comments and corrections.

Here’s my bottom line: when writing about a culture that isn’t your own, especially one that has been marginalized and misrepresented, hiring a sensitivity reader is usually necessary and can be incredibly helpful. 

My Top Three Tips for Hiring A Sensitivity Reader

            1. If you can, choose a sensitivity reader who also understands the world of publishing.

            2. Expect to pay them (or at least offer). How much? I’ve heard $250.00, but this varies.

            3. Listen to and heed their comments, even if it means reworking your novel.

Have you used a sensitivity reader? What are your thoughts? Join the conversation below or on our Facebook page.


  1. Your professor sounds perfect for your needs, Connie.

    When I started writing Ready for Love, a romance with a mixed race character, I read a lot of memoirs and articles written by mixed race characters. My research confirmed what I knew, every individual has their own experience. I decided to use a sensitivity reader to be sure that my character wasn’t a stereotype and that my story wasn’t offensive.

  2. The difficulty is that even people within a group don’t share the same perceptions as to what they’re about—their experience, outlook, values, politics, etc. Add that perceptions and a culture’s mores change and evolve over time. Finally, when we write a character, we are writing THAT character, not as a paradigm or necessarily representing a group, its values, expressions, etc. I am satisfied that my disrespectful characters will suffer consequences, but beyond that, don’t feel I need to take the measure of the world’s sensitivities, for the simple reason it’s an impossible task and any spokesperson who claims to be THE definitive authority of cultural expression will always be subject to challenge by somebody else’s sensitivities.

    1. Lanny, I won’t even get into the dangers of feeding into stereotypes under hte name of disrespecful characters. But I will say that a sensitivity reader can also read for cultural accuracy as well as Connie referenced.

      I don’t know what you write but I’m assuming that there’s research involved when it comes to guns, police procedure, etc. A lot of folks even speak with law enforcment about that. There’s nothing wrong with doing the same for culture.

      A good example is a friend asking me about night time hair care routines a mother might do for her black children. Chances are, it’s not going to be the same for other cultures. Those are the small moments that to me make a book really sing.

  3. Quite right. When we read a book written only ten years ago, we are likely to find a detail, innocuous then, that would be offensive today.

  4. You walk a fine line when it comes to how readers will view something. I had an agent point to my draft where I had an Italian-American family having ravioli at a Sunday dinner, saying that was stereotyping. I was a bit chagrined since that was what my Italian-American family would have been having for a special dinner.

    1. You absolutely cannot please everyone at the same time. And people are individuals. I may have more in common with someone whose background isn’t like mine at all than I would have with a close relative. What we wouldn’t necessarily share is a shared history.

  5. I had the same exact dilemma! I had a Romani character in Behind the Lie, but, since he was also Russian, I called him what he would have called himself – tzigane. And since in Russia being a tzigan is considered a little mysterious and romantic, some people claim to have this in their heritage even if they probably don’t, as did a couple members of my family. 😉 I trod very lightly with that one.

  6. I can’t wait to read your book it sounds like it will be terrific. You obviuosly worked hard to get the details right.

  7. What I am most impressed by in this deep and deserving conversation is the sincerity, hard work, and yes, even money, writers invest to get it right to service and respect their readers. Kudos to my Miss Demeanors!

  8. So glad you mention paying someone for their time. So many folks think a marginalized group should do it for free, when the author’s own ultimate goal is to make money off their work.

  9. Connie,
    I’m curious—can you share any specific examples of what your sensitivity reader found wrong or offensive? For example, did he say the word “gypsy” has a negative connotation or is it acceptable?

  10. What a great discussion! I thanks, Connie, for pointing out how tough our job really is, and how hard most writers work to get things right!
    Looking forward to your latest more than ever now~

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