This morning my friend tagged me on a post featuring an article about sensitivity readers. Without reading the article, I replied, “Yes! I use sensitivity readers and editors all the time!” Then, I did a bad thing—I read the comments. Ugh. A few people equated this type of editing to censorship and others made some really insulting remarks. (Btw, why do people use disability slurs whenever they’re getting particularly irate? As a disabled person I think: You wish you had my awesome.)
I can’t help but feel the issue here is that not many people understand what sensitivity editing is. The essence of it is to capture nuances correctly and avoid misrepresenting people who have a difference lived experience from the author. So, in my case, I am a straight woman who is currently writing a story where the protagonists are gay men. (Well, gay lizardmen aliens who are badass warriors, but you get the picture.) Along with their adventures is the arc of their relationship and love story. Another character in this book is asexual and there is a transfeminine character as well. Now, even though my lived experience as a cishet woman (cisgender and heterosexual) is to have a plethora of queer buddies and a BFF who is trans, trust me when I say I wouldn’t dare publish a story or book without sensitivity editing. As educated as I think I might be about queer experiences through listening to my friends and reading well-written queer fiction and other own-voice materials, the bottom line is this—I’m not queer, so I won’t know everything. Not by a long shot.
Author ‘Nathan Burgoine (stellar writer, oh my word) made an excellent statement that went something like this: When writing characters who are not your lived experience, ask yourself why you’re doing it.
That’s a great litmus paper right there. Are you creating your characters because you feel entitled to write whatever you like, or are you sincerely interested in representing them so well that people will be moved by them? Do you care about avoiding tropes and clichés that could actually hurt queer people, disabled folks, persons of colour, and so on? If so, then get some sensitivity readers/editors on your team. You’ll be glad you did.
In my experience, having readers who represent the characters I’m writing about gives me such relief. I feel like I can relax because they’ll tell me if I missed something or wrote a thing that’s just not realistic. They can explain if I accidentally fell into some harmful tropes. But what they also can do is tell me whenever I get things right. I find sensitivity readers want my book to do well and offer suggestions that make things even better than I’d originally written. (As an editor myself, I love this, since my own goal is to make the work of my clients shine!)
My bff, Talia C. Johnson, is a sensitivity editor for queer and trans characters. She’s looked at everything I’ve published or submitted. Recently I sold a story to the Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland anthology, where my main character is genderqueer. I wanted Alice to be non-binary, and I really wanted them as the protagonist, not a secondary player in the story. I felt confident in submitting my entry because I had the validation not only from Talia, but also from a close friend who is non-binary.
For my upcoming book, The Stealth Lovers, I have my sensitivity editor and my beta readers all lined up. I’ve picked a group of people who can provide me with vital feedback about the characters as well as the story. You have no idea how much I treasure these folks.
So, no, I don’t equate sensitivity editing with censorship at all. These editors check for misrepresentation of people the same way a stylistic editor catches flow and repetition issues. It’s just another part of the editing process. And good sensitivity readers/editors give you suggestions about how to improve your writing.
I don’t want to be a jerk; I want people to love my books. My writing is extremely character-driven, so crafting these people (or aliens) really matters to me. My love for my queer friends drives me to want to do right by them.
The last thing I want is to publish something that hurts people.
Cait (pronounced like “cat”) Gordon is originally from Verdun, Québec, and has been living in the suburbs of Ottawa since 1998. Her first novel, Life in the ’Cosm (Renaissance) was published in 2016. Her short story, A Night at the Rabbit Hole, appears in the Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland anthology (Exile Editions). She’s currently working on The Stealth Lovers, a prequel to the ’Cosm series. For her day job, Cait is a freelance editor. Some of the titles she’s edited include Confessions of a Mad Mooer: Postnatal Depression Sucks (Robin Elizabeth), Camp Follower: One Army Brat’s Story (Michele Sabad), Skylark (S.M. Carrière), Little Yellow Magnet (Jamieson Wolf), A Desert Song (Amy M. Young), and Moonshadow’s Guardian (Dianna Gunn). Cait is also the founder and editor of the Spoonie Authors Network, whose contributors manage chronic conditions and/or disabilities.