More and more these days, fiction authors are hiring sensitivity readers/editors or being asked to have their works or pitches reviewed by readers/editors who share a lived experience with the characters in their stories. For me, who is a sensitivity editor and who relies on them so much, I forget that the concept might rub some authors the wrong way. They often interpret the word “sensitive” as some kind of insult. So, let me clarify:
Sensitivity in context with needing a sensitivity editor means you want to make sure you’re not writing harmful content for an audience who shares a lived experience with characters in your book—a lived experience you as an author do not share.
It’s about representation. And maybe a little more than that too. Known also as diversity editors, I like to think of them as awareness editors, because they make us aware of realities and nuances that are unknown to us.
I’ll take it upon myself with the example of my upcoming release, Season One: Iris and the Crew Tear Through Space! I am disabled, autistic, mentally ill, and hard-of-hearing of voices because of what seems to be auditory processing disorder (APD). I wrote this space opera with an ensemble cast because I wanted to do an accessible and accommodating world-building. This means I have characters who have disabilities or states of being that I don’t have. Despite my research of lived-experience videos and articles, and what I know from being immersed in community with and being an editor of works by folks who are disabled, d/Deaf, neurodivergent, Blind, and/or who manage mental health, there was no way I would have Iris and the Crew published without sensitivity editors. In fact, it was part of my pitch that even though I wrote with extreme care, I would need the manuscript assessed to make sure I didn’t include something that was “AH! BURN IT WITH FIRE!”
I made another choice as well. I didn’t write how any of my characters became disabled, Deaf, Blind, or mentally ill. There are no diagnoses. My mission was to have them just be and show what their space adventures could look like in a society where bodyminds are celebrated. So, no deep-dive point of views (POV), except maybe with Herb and Gerri, through whom I would write a lot of my autistic sensory stuff and other traits. (Okay, I do have an episode called Clarence has a POV, but I think I captured this little robot’s perspective pretty well.)
So, I didn’t have an attitude, of “Hey, I’m a disability advocate in literary spaces. I know things! I don’t need sensitivity editors!” I was more like, “Hold me because I don’t want to hurt people!” I’m hyper-empathetic, and the notion of hurting others is a big fear of mine. You don’t have to be terrified like I get, just humble enough to know you might not be aware of stuff.
I love this article that Canadian author ’Nathan Burgoine wrote for the Spoonie Authors Network: “The First Thing is the Why.” In it, he says how it’s important to ask yourself why you should be writing characters who don’t share your lived experiences, and he brings up POV writing. Writing in-depth POV with protagonists whose lives are really out of your wheelhouse can be very risky, so asking yourself, “Why me?” is important there. It’s really difficult to capture the same nuances as someone who lives those experiences. And when it comes to marginalized people, whose works (in my opinion) are not elevated or published enough, you are probably taking space away from them in Publishing. So, give that a good, hard think. Sharing your pitch with a sensitivity editor could really guide you there. I know a sensitivity editor who said they would refuse to edit a work because of the pitch they heard—it was full of harmful tropes and there was no way to “save” it. You don’t want your stories full of “tropes and nopes,” that’s fore sure.
But having diverse characters in stories can be awesome. Let them be part of the cast, solving crimes, having a romance, or doing the pew-pew-pew! First, do your research, learn from people, attend panels, and read blogs and books recommended by folks with that lived experience.
Whatever you do, don’t include certain characters because you think it’s trendy or could sell more books. Because honestly, that’s just ick.
Let your “why” have a healthy answer to it.
Some tropes and nopes
Obviously, I can’t think of all of the things to avoid, but here are a few:
Writing “saviourism” stories—this is when someone with racial, wealth, and/or abled privilege rescues marginalized characters. By this I mean that the only purpose of, for example, a disabled character is to show how wonderful the non-disabled protagonist is. Or the only purpose of a Black or an Indigenous character is to be rescued by a white protagonist.
“Burying your gays”—this ubiquitous and harmful trope has been around for decades. It’s when you have one LGBTQIA2S+ character in your story, and they have to die by the end of the book. Or there is only one queer couple, but one of them dies. Let us live!
“Inspiration porn”—this is one that gets my goat the most. (I’ve spoken to my goat, and she hates it immensely.) Those are the stories where the sole purpose of a disabled character is to overcome their disability (“cure narratives”), or they exist just to inspire the protagonist. Extra icky points for the disabled person dying while inspiring the protagonist. Let us be disabled all the way through the story. Give us a personality. (I highly recommend snarky!)
Racism—this might seem really obvious to avoid, but some authors could miss some instances where it appears in their work. For white folks like myself, we might not be fully aware of the impact systemic racism has had on us. We might even be anti-racist, yet, something we’re completely unaware of could find itself on the page. Also, I’m just going to say it: white folks, really consider refraining from writing protagonists who are Black, Indigenous, and/or persons of colour. Because the industry is so predominantly white. (Buy and boost the works of these authors instead.) But yeah, I reckon a good rule of thumb is that everyone should write with care to make sure we’re not writing harmful characterizations and stereotypes of our fellow humans.
Misogyny—this applies to misogyny of cisgender and trans women. Just don’t. And for the love of all things, can you talk about our personality, aspirations, skills, and not our body parts? Genitals don’t define a gender, either. Now, this might be shocking to cisgender male authors, but BOOBS ARE NOT SENTIENT! They don’t get sad or angry or resentful. (My boobs really wanted you to know that.) Write us as human beings. We don’t even have to be “strong” all the time. We can show strength and vulnerability (which really is another form of strength). You don’t need to rescue us either. Because really, in actual life, it’s often women who come up with solutions. Seriously, just observe that. By the way, you left your wallet in the inside pocket of that grey blazer you wear, like, once a year. You’re welcome.
The betas and the editors
If you’re really lucky, you might have beta readers who are willing to give you sensitivity feedback free of charge. I only mention this because budgets can be tight for indie authors. Sensitivity readers and editors are worth paying for because their job is really important. I have paid for their work and have been blessed to also have beta readers who were happy to offer feedback from their lived experiences too.
Truth be told, I am always anxious about feedback. That’s just my nature. But I can tell you I am really grateful for it. Going in with the attitude that these readers and editors want to help me and make my book more enjoyed by my audience really is the key. They also want to help rid my work of harmful terms and tropes. While language is constantly changing and evolving, it’s important to do your best. I feel readers can tell when an author cares to represent their characters well. The respect comes off the page, in my opinion.
I would encourage you to find betas who don’t have a problem giving honest feedback. And as for sensitivity editors, ask around! Here’s a link for “Sensitivity and Diversity Editors” from the Spoonie Authors Network that might help for some areas of representation. You can post on social media, too. I found a wonderful sensitivity editor for my latest WIP on Twitter!
It helps to chat with them a bit first. If their personality gels with yours, then there’s a good chance you’ll collaborate well together. It’s so great when you can have a healthy working relationship. I can’t even tell you how much I have benefitted and grown. I know so much more now than I did over six years ago, when I entered Published Author Land!
Again, attitude is huge. Be humble, be willing to accept that you’ll have to modify your work, and try not to take comments as a mark against you as a person. We don’t know everything and these comments can expand our awareness immensely.
I sincerely wish you all the best with your writing projects. While it’s impossible to be perfect, we can do our best to deliver characters who shine.
And maybe sometimes we need to abandon an idea altogether. But we might come up with a way better idea!
It’s a journey, for real, being an author and a human being. Always so much to learn, always so many areas to grow in.
That’s part of the adventure for me, to be honest.
May you have an amazing adventure too.
Cait Gordon is an autistic, disabled, and queer Canadian writer of speculative fiction that celebrates diversity. She is the author of Life in the ’Cosm, The Stealth Lovers, and the forthcoming Iris and the Crew Tear Through Space (2023). Cait also founded the Spoonie Authors Network and joined Talia C. Johnson to co-edit the multi-genre disability fiction anthologies Nothing Without Us and Nothing Without Us Too.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com