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“Sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.”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 (rtfhs.org.uk), 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.