Sensitivity Reading and Editing

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There is a lot of contradictory information swirling around the subject of sensitivity reading and culturally sensitive editing, and the terminology has become embroiled in the culture wars. While many mainstream publishers have relied on such readings of their titles for many years, the role has only come under such close scrutiny in more recent years, and increasingly become portrayed as ‘fiction’s new moral gatekeepers’ (Spectator). For a summary of the debate to date, the Bookseller have you covered.

For those who are interested in the role such reading and editing might have in the independent-publishing sphere, we spoke to Holly Edgar, the founder of Write Up, an editorial agency that works ‘with authors, publishers and employers who want to create a more inclusive future by creating content that inspires everyone and excludes no one’.

If getting your language right, your descriptions accurate and making sure people can see people who look like them in the media they consume makes people happy, comfortable and respected, why wouldn’t you do it?

Why is sensitivity reading/culturally sensitive editing important?

Holly: This is a biggie, but for me, it comes down to kindness. Bear with me, because I know that sounds twee, but if getting your language right, your descriptions accurate and making sure people can see people who look like them in the media they consume makes people happy, comfortable and respected, why wouldn’t you do it?

A longer answer is that it helps avoid inaccurately portraying marginalised people or cultures. Sensitivity readers are specialist editors who pinpoint elements that may lack authenticity and find scenarios or storylines that, for various reasons, might seem improbable within the context of their community or own experience. Because of their lived experience, they have a greater capacity to identify inaccuracies and stereotypes about their community and are in better positions to suggest changes. In-house teams at UK publishers are currently not very diverse, so the potential for spotting bloopers that way is still fairly limited.

The idea is to make the author and publisher sensitive to their work’s possible issues and implications and let them make an informed choice about any changes to be made. While some cultural errors, like an Australian character saying they’re ‘going to the ball game’ won’t cause harm, the repercussions of stereotypical or inaccurate portrayals of marginalised communities can be profound. Accuracy in representation is about avoiding harm and fostering a more respectful and inclusive narrative.

Seeing people like us on TV or in books matters a lot. It’s how we make up our minds about different groups before even meeting them or how we think others will see us. If the media consistently paints a group badly, or even just in one particular way, we eventually believe that’s true. It affects how we expect people from that group to act, and if we’re part of that group, we might even feel like we should act a certain way. Not all media representation is negative, but there are a lot of harmful stereotypes out there (equating ‘fatness’ with ‘laziness’ is one) that influence how society sees you.

Also, not everyone even gets to see themselves on the screen or in books, which makes you feel like you shouldn’t exist, like you’re not OK just being yourself, and that’s a lonely place to be. You start believing you’re not important and that maybe people won’t like you if they see the real you. But when you see bits of your story in everyday life, it’s affirming. It makes you feel less alone and more normal. Finding movies or books about subjects that matter to you, or a character you can relate to, helps you start accepting yourself and reminds you that you exist in, and are a valid part of, the world.

For educational materials, where I started in publishing, content needs to be especially relevant to the audience. If your textbook is for the Caribbean, show a Trinidadian teacher in a Trinidadian classroom, not a random Black person, in a stock photo probably taken in the US. Take the time to notice that Trinidad also has ethnically Indian and Chinese populations, so the kids in the class should be racially mixed. Give examples of scientists, mathematicians or authors from the region. It’s about doing the work as well as meeting syllabus requirements.

What are the different options available for publishers with varying budgets?

Holly: We can do anything from commissioning authors, reading the entire production stage (e.g. draft, final manuscript, layouts, colour artwork) to picking out specific parts of the text or images that you want a closer look at. Our usual package covers one production stage (usually the draft manuscript), and the reader would annotate the Word file in-line and send a detailed report summarising their feedback (and, importantly, giving context so you and your author can make an informed decision). We advise publishers to build this into their costs ahead of time, rather than leaving it to the last minute or trying to take a chunk out of other bits of the budget.

Can you suggest any resources for presses starting to think more about inclusivity?
Holly: We offer training and workshops from the ABCs of inclusion to really in-depth stuff (last year, one of our consultants did a talk about the anthropomorphisation of characters in children’s books and their racial connotations). But it can also be as simple as ‘What’s intersectionality?’, ‘What do I do with a sensitivity reader’s feedback?’ or ‘How do I know if I need one?’.

Any top tips for publishers who want to improve the sensitivity of their offering but aren’t yet able to stretch to a full read?

Holly: I’d say get in touch with someone at the commissioning stage who can read your outline or synopsis and pinpoint any potential pitfalls. Then, you could always get someone to read specific parts (e.g., we recently read one chapter of a book that focused heavily on an Islamic character).


Last updated: 29th November 2023
Author(s): Will Dady, Renard Press, with Holly Edgar from Write Up