What Are Sensitivity Readers?

Sensitivity Readers: What They Do and Why You Need Them

Learn From My Mistakes

It all began with my fascination with the Navajo Code Talkers. Their ability to rapidly send messages in a code they invented, using their native language, provided a huge advantage to U.S.Forces fighting in the Pacific theater during World War II.

I was so excited about them I wanted to put them in a scene in my novel. I read three books about the codebreakers, explored the nature of their code, studied Navajo (or Diné) myths, and watched footage of actual Code Talkers. I researched the name of every single Code Talker who died in battle. I thought I had done a splendid job honoring them.

I was wrong.

When I asked a Diné friend to read over the passage, he was so distraught he had his older daughter communicate with me. I had my Code Talkers speak openly of death, but in fact among the Diné that is a taboo topic. I had one of my characters relate a certain myth, but that myth was only recited in connection with a certain festival. What’s more, not every Diné is an actual storyteller. And so on and so on.

Diversity Matters

Classic sf and fantasy frequently focus on the stories of able-bodied cishet white men. Many speculative writers today, however, would like to write stories with diverse characters. In doing so, one is making a clear statement that our present, past, and future includes a wide range of different kinds of people and cultures.

But pulling this off successfully can be a major challenge. Some may argue that it should not even be attempted. I think that if the only representation of a marginalized group is found in the writings of a non-marginalized authors, there is a serious problem. I also think that including diverse characters and cultures in one’s writing is a worthy endeavor, but cannot be done without significant help.

This is why sensitivity readers are so important. All the research in the world is not enough to adequately depict a character who comes from a different culture, “race,” or religion. The same applies to writing characters who are disabled, neurodiverse, mentally ill, queer, trans, or non-gender conforming. It is so easy to get it wrong and to fall into bad tropes and stereotypes, be harmfully inaccurate or culturally appropriate.

Bad Tropes and Stereotypes

Bad tropes include “the Black or Gay best friend” in which such a character only exists to help the (White and straight) main character but has no arc of their own. Similar to this is “the Magical Negro,” in which a Black person with some kind of spiritual power only exists (yet again) to help the (White) main character. Morpheus from The Matrix movies is an example of this. You can read more about racist tropes, harmful LGBTQ tropes, and anti-Semitic tropes.

Stereotypes include the super-smart Asian, the passionate Latinx lover, the rich Jew, the lisping gay man with astounding fashion sense, the autistic person as a male, mathematical savant without feelings, all blind people as musicians, and people with mental illness either “with a beautiful mind,” or violent.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation takes place when a dominant culture uses the ideas, customs, or practices of a minority culture in a way divorced from the original context, or by not acknowledging the source of appropriated element. As a Jew, I get rather angry when Christians have a seder on Passover in which Christian elements are introduced. Another example would be the use of a sweat lodge or peyote without acknowledging the indigenous origin and specific practices of these elements.

This becomes a major issue when the world-building in a fantasy draws upon an un-acknowledged culture. A recent example of this is the problematic use of Asian cultures by a non-Asian author in The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera.

How Sensitivity Readers Can Help

The last thing we want as authors is to propagate such dangerous depictions. Nor do we want to cause pain for our readers. A sensitivity reader can not only prevent this from happening, they can assist you with the subtle nuances involved in depicting a certain group.

Sensitivity readers could let you know that the different ways different Jews choose to keep kosher is rather complex. That words like “moron” and “idiot” had a specific technical meaning and can still be damaging, That not all non-binary people are necessarily androgynous in appearance. That if one wants to refer to Harry Potter, it’s essential to state you do not do not support the hateful transphobic views of its author. Otherwise your trans readers will not feel safe.

Sensitivity Readers can also make you aware of the dangerous implications of using disability as a metaphor. Sentences like “The banker was blinded by greed,” “Zynga’s words fell upon deaf ears,” “That’s so lame,” or “You must be insane,” are damaging because they are using real human conditions in a negative sense. Similarly, it is best not to use mental illnesses to explain a character’s mental state unless they actually have that illness.

The use of this kind of problematic language is a form of what is known as ableism, For suggestions on what to write or say instead, see this valuable article.

Controversy about Sensitivity Readers

Some have argued that the use of sensitivity readers amounts to a form of “gatekeeping,” “censorship,” or that it will inhibit writer creativity. I disagree. The best sensitivity readers do not edit your writing, but carefully point out where you could do better in your characters and in your world-building. What you do with that information is under your control.

How to Get a Sensitivity Reader

Sometimes one may get a sensitivity reader from one’s publisher. Otherwise you can search for them on the internet. For example, Writing Diversely has a wide range of possible readers. I am happy to be a free sensitivity reader as a queer, non-binary, Jewish, autistic, bipolar, and disabled person with kidney failure for my fellow writers in the Spec Fiction Writers Association.


There may come a day in which AI can detect at least some of the dangerous tropes and stereotypes, but even then, I think sensitivity readers may be necessary. They play a key role in making sure your writing does a good job of representing people different from you.

That said, having such a reader does not ensure that you get it right entirely. It is necessary to do your own research as well. Study the different kinds of bad tropes and stereotypes so that you can avoid them and read a lot of fiction and non-fiction written by the people whose group you are portraying. Then bring in the sensitivity readers. Happy writing!

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