blogpoetry/writers

Using a sensitivity reader for my latest writing project

I nightmare natural disasters. Tidal waves filling up my apartment building, floor by floor. Tornadoes suddenly appearing on the road in front of me.


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For years, I’ve been terrified of climate change, global warming, and the effects of natural and manmade disasters. All through journalism school, I read, watched, and learned about devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, nuclear reactor shutdowns, floods, tornadoes, and more.

After graduating from college, I heard and learned more about melting arctic sea ice, rising sea levels, sinking cities, submerging islands, droughts, violence and war caused, in part, due to effects of climate change. And the increasing frequency of these disasters isn’t lost on me.

I wanted to take this fear, these real nightmares, and translate them into stories. I’ve been reading essays on the emergence of “clifi” — climate fiction, and the importance of humanizing the confusing, unfathomable facts and numbers.

For the past three years, I’ve been writing what I’ve taken to calling Forecasts. Some of them are already out in the world (Forecast: 2035Forecast, and Forecast: 2085). They’re short stories about climate change and potential futures of humanity, set in different locations, times, and with diverse main characters. All of the science is based on articles and books I read. This is science fiction, but only to a point. I want that to be very clear.

I went into this project with the goal of writing a comprehensive fictional account showing how climate change may very well affect us in the future. And us doesn’t just mean the U.S. or white folks. I tried very hard to include multiple identities in my stories. Which meant writing from perspectives outside my own.

Once the project was in a decent state, I sought out a sensitivity reader specifically because I was writing from perspectives outside my own. These are experienced editors who read your work, searching for any comments or descriptions that may be problematic. This can include issues of race, sexual identity, gender, age, disability, etc. I asked for sensitivity readers on social media and was directed to writingdiversely.com and writeinthemargins.org/sensitivity-readers. This Google spreadsheet of sensitivity readers, broken down by their interests, expertise, and preferred genres, was extremely helpful.

I contacted Michón Neal because their interests aligned with my book. Michón was a meticulous, thoughtful reader who offered nuanced comments. Their feedback was invaluable in my revisions and recognizing my own biases.

If you’re wondering why writers would ever need something like a sensitivity reader, consider this. Here’s one example that’s been getting a lot of attention lately. Male writers often describe female characters in their work as busty. That’s pretty much the extent of their description and personality for women characters. If they wrote female characters like they wrote their male characters, it might not be as much of an issue. But you know what would fix this highly inaccurate and offensive portrayal of women? Hiring sensitivity readers and editors to point out these instances and push these writers to write real characters.

And for those writers who are thinking your work doesn’t have any issues, that you’ve read through it and there’s nothing wrong — that’s just incorrect, especially if you have any sort of privilege. There are all kinds of microaggressions and invisible and visible biases that work themselves into our writing. We may not intend to write in this manner, but it happens. So it’s important to find these instances and work on them in your writing.

Don’t be afraid of sensitivity readers. It’s not a form of censorship, like some writers are bemoaning. We all have biases and sensitivity readers can help us produce better, stronger, more representative and diverse work. Which is something we should all really be striving for.

A reminder since it’s something folks are still complaining and making excuses about — pay your sensitivity reader. This is a service. They are reading through your entire manuscript! And not only that, but doing the emotional labor and actual labor of finding the problematic parts of your work and responding to it/offering ways to improve and avoid these issues. This is something you should pay them for.

So thank you, Michón, for your thoughtful read and feedback. And thank you for your continued interest, readers. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on these Forecasts.