Sensitivity and Sensibility: Learning and Growing with Representation in Writing

I am a sensitivity/diversity editor, particularly for disability representation in fiction.

I am also a flawed human who’s writing hasn’t been perfect.

Still, I’m a person who wants to keep learning and growing.

You, too?

There’s one thing I want to underscore in this post: You are not perfect, but that’s okay, as long as you are willing to listen to and accept the realities of people with lived experiences that differ from yours.

The word “sensitivity” seems to get under some authors’ skin. They’ll take it as an insult, as if they are accused of being insensitive, or, they’ll take it as a roadblock to their creativity.

But honestly, sensitivity/diversity editing is not

LET ME LIMIT YOU IN ALL THE THINGS, SO YOUR STORY IS CRAP!

But it is

Let me explain how to improve this writing so you can have an even wider audience enjoy it, because you’re respecting their reality.

That’s how I feel about it, anyway. And I not only am this type of editor, I also ask for that feedback on my own work. Just recently, I hired author and editor Robert Kingett to read my latest short story (now submitted), Ranger of the Sea, because it included a blind character. Being blind or partially sighted is way, way out of my wheelhouse. But, I wrote this character with as much sensitivity as I could, then handed it over for validation. And even though I received much praise from Robert, he also pointed out a major issue I would have never guessed in a billion years. To me, this was like paying for an education that will make me a better author going forward.

Some authors don’t want to write main characters who are out of their wheelhouse. That’s fair because we should be comfortable and enjoy the process of creating art. I don’t mind it so much, but I try to steer clear of treading deep into own-voices territory, that is, I just focus on making my characters part of a story. Even still, for The Stealth Lovers, I had so much representation from LGBTQIA+ beta readers and sensitivity editors, they made me feel confident about the finished product.

We just can’t know everything, no matter how progressive and inclusive we might be at this stage in our lives. We cannot go through every possible lived experience. We need to have our work reviewed. And that is also perfectly fine! It doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent—it means you are wise!

Now, even though I believe sensitivity editors are worth every penny, I understand that budgets might be tight, especially for indie authors. Costs do add up. But if you would consider including this in your budget (and some beta readers might also be happy to assist with sensitivity), it’s worth it.

Another plug I’ll make is my BFF, Kohenet Talia C. Johnson. She does sensitivity editing for autistic, queer, and/or trans representation. Even if you have a pitch, ask her about your idea! She’s helped several authors (me included), and is a fair editor who understands nuance. Her explanations are also really helpful as well.

If you’ve enjoyed working with a sensitivity editor or are one, please leave a comment on this post!

Anyway, the end goal is to have our stories read and enjoyed. In my experience, when marginalized readers have seen themselves reflected in the characters of my stories, and they tell me about it in an excited manner, I feel like I’ve won all the awards ever.

I know for myself, I’ll get thrilled when I can relate to autistic and/or disabled characters written well. It’s this sort of “YES!” feeling.

Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to strive for as authors? All I know is that the more I learn, the wider my understanding of humanity, and the better skills I acquire as a storyteller.

Could your own work be more sensitive to other lived experiences?

Give it a think.

I will, too.


Cait Gordon is a disability advocate who wants everyone to be wise and think of others as we battle COVID-19!

She’s also the author of Life in the ’Cosm and The Stealth Lovers. When Cait’s not writing, she’s editing manuscripts and running The Spoonie Authors Network, a blog whose contributors manage disabilities and/or chronic conditions. She also teamed up with Kohenet Talia C. Johnson to co-edit the Nothing Without Us anthology (a 2020 Prix Aurora Award finalist for Best Related Work) in an attempt to take over the world.

2 thoughts on “Sensitivity and Sensibility: Learning and Growing with Representation in Writing

  1. Great post, Cait! I totally agree. Even for someone like me who loves research (after all, research keeps me from the hard work of writing), a sensitivity reader will pick up nuances and point you in key directions. They are so valuable!

    Liked by 1 person

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