The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

Recently, some publishers have been hiring people called “sensitivity” readers to “scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content,” according to the Chicago Tribune article on the subject (which you can read here on archive.is if you are interested). It’s caused a minor stir among the circles I run in and, while I normally don’t comment on these sorts of things, I felt this was worth making an exception for.

To be frank, I think this is a dumb idea, possibly one of the dumbest ideas ever conceived of in publishing (and there have been lots of dumb ideas in publishing, believe me). I think it is nothing more and nothing less than certain individuals taking advantage of the fears that certain writers and publishers have offending certain groups of people in order to profit, to say nothing about how this could lead to extreme censorship at any publishing houses that choose to employ these kinds of people.

I’ve seen some people defend sensitivity readers by comparing them to having a friend from, say, a police background reading a police procedural to make sure that you get the facts about police work is right. But that’s a bad argument because there is a very big difference between fact checking and sensitivity reading (at least, sensitivity reading as I understand it; perhaps some do it differently).

For example, let’s say I wrote a police procedural; however, not being a police cop myself, I have probably gotten some details and facts wrong even if I thoroughly researched the subject beforehand. To catch the mistakes I didn’t notice, I employ a friend of mine who is a police officer and ask him to read the manuscript and report any factual errors or mistakes about police work that I might have unintentionally made due to my ignorance and lack of experience as a police officer.

Let’s say that my police friend reads the manuscript and gets back to me, but instead of providing me with the errors he caught, he takes offense at my portrayal of police officers in the book (for the sake of this example, let’s say my police procedural deals with police corruption and features a few bad cops as prominent characters). My police friend demands that I rewrite my book in order to make the police look better, even if I already have some good cop characters in the book. Perhaps my police friend even tells me that the way I portrayed corrupt officers is really problematic and offensive and contributes to society’s negative views of police, which makes life harder for police officers. Maybe he will even accuse of me being a cop hater if I don’t revise according to his subjective opinions.

Is that reasonable? No, of course not. Nor does it have anything to do with fact checking or even telling a good story. My hypothetical police friend did not tell me, for example, that I described characters using the wrong kind of guns or referring to each other with incorrect titles or something objective like that. He simply got offended by the fact that I portrayed some cops as corrupt or immoral or perhaps simply incompetent and he wants me to revise according to his personal ideas about how cops should be portrayed in fiction so I can push his agenda, instead of staying true to my own.

That, as I understand it, is sensitivity reading in a nutshell, and why I am against it. It is less about fact checking and more about making sure that writers portray things according to the tastes of certain easily offended people.

See, I have nothing against fact checking. As writers, we owe it to our readers to get the facts right as much as we can. That requires doing research and, yes, sometimes having people more knowledgeable about certain topics than you read the book to catch any errors you may have unintentionally made.

But I draw the line at people telling me how I “should” portray this person or this group of people, as if I broke some sort of unspoken and unwritten rule about how to portray certain minority groups. I especially would never pay for such advice; I can’t think of a bigger waste of money than paying someone to tell me how to censor myself to appease certain unappeasable groups who probably don’t even read what I write anyway. I have the freedom to portray anyone however I want, even if offends some people in the process. If my books offend them, they don’t have to read them.

Really, what sensitivity readers reveal is a lack of courage among certain publishers and writers. Instead of learning to trust their own opinions and experiences and to write what they want, they choose to let themselves be bossed around by people who, as far as I can tell, are not even successful writers themselves and care more about pushing a particular agenda or narrative than telling a good story readers will enjoy. Writers already suffer from huge self-confidence issues; all sensitivity readers do is make that problem even worse by causing writers to worry about being unintentionally bigoted. We need to teach writers that you can’t please everyone and that you will always offend someone, so it’s better to ignore those people and just write the best stories you know how.

Personally, I would never use a sensitivity reader myself, much less pay $250 (which is what some sensitivity readers charge, according to the article) for one’s services. I can understand paying for covert art, paying for developmental and copy editing, paying for formatting, but paying for sensitivity readers is nothing more than adding another unnecessary expenditure to your budget. Big publishers may be able to afford it, but smaller and indie publishers cannot, and I don’t want indies in particular thinking that they ‘need’ sensitivity readers; that money could go toward something more important, like cover art, for example.

In the end, though, I don’t lose any sleep worrying about sensitivity readers, given how I am an indie who doesn’t publish with any publisher, big or small, which makes it unlikely that I will ever use one myself. Still, I find it a disturbing trend in the industry, one I hope either dies out or stays small and insignificant, and I hope that this post has helped some people understand why sensitivity readers are not a good thing.

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Twenty-Two

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PAGES EDITED: 220/220 (COMPLETED)

I did it.

I wrote and edited a full-length novel in 22 days. I gave the book to my copy editor, who I figure should get through the book within the next couple of days. Then all I will need to do is format and publish the book.

So yes, that means that the 25-Day Novel Challenge is over. I won’t be doing daily posts here on the website anymore about my progress. I thought about doing some posts about my marketing plans for the book, but none of what I have planned is particularly special or interesting, so I’m not going to say anything about that.

But I will say that if you want to be the FIRST to know about the release of The Superhero’s Test, then subscribe to my mailing list by entering your email address into the box at the bottom of this post. I will, of course, post about the book here on my website once it is live on Amazon, but under my main name I always let my mailing list readers know about my newest releases before anyone else and I intend to do that with this pen name as well.

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Twenty-One

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PAGES EDITED: 200/220

As of today, I am now 90% finished with the editing phase of The Superhero’s Test. Tomorrow I will edit the final 20 pages, hand over the document to my copy editor, and hopefully have the book itself published by Monday or Tuesday of next week. Can’t wait!

This has been a fun yet tough challenge for me. It was fun to write a 66k novel in 16 days, but the editing has been kind of boring and is my least favorite part of the process so far. I like how I usually do it, where I put a project aside for a few weeks and then come back to editing it, but if this book does as well as I hope it will, then I’ll probably stick with this process for my next book in this series.

Anyway, that’s all for today. On to Day 22!

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Nineteen

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PAGES EDITED: 120/220

I am now 55% of the way through the editing phase, which means that I am a little over halfway done! Yay! I am still on target to finish the editing phase by Day 21 and hopefully have the book itself published by Day 25.

Today’s editing session went really well. As I edited it, I noticed that I had put in a bit that foreshadowed the way the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist at the end of the book. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I have to say that it is pretty good, because I didn’t have the climax of the story figured out before I sat down and started writing this story. It was like my subconscious knew ahead of time how the climax was going to end and put this bit in early so it would be foreshadowed.

This is another reason I don’t write with an outline. So often, my subconscious seems to know the details of the climax or ending well before my conscious mind does. I know outliners probably have these moments of unconscious brilliance, too, but I just consider it more amazing when a writer does it without an outline.

Anyway, that’s all for today. On to Day 20!

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Eighteen

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PAGES EDITED: 80/220

We are now on Day Eighteen of the 25-Day Novel Challenge. That means that there is just one week left in the challenge. I am pretty sure I will finish the editing process before Day 25, but we’ll see.

I don’t have much else to say today, except that I’m also working on the second book in the series at the same time I am editing this book. The second book is coming along pretty well, but I don’t expect to be finished with it until July, perhaps.

I can reveal it’s title, however: The Superhero’s Team. Stay tuned for more details after the 25-Day Novel Challenge.

Anyway, that’s enough for today. On to Day Nineteen!

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Seventeen

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PAGES EDITED: 40/220

We are now at the start of the editing phase. I hit my 40 pages for the day, which is the goal I’ve set for myself for this period, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

I didn’t find too much to edit, except fixing some typos, awkwardly-worded sentences, and changing details for consistency’s sake. I usually write clean, though, so I’m not surprised, although I am grateful, because it means I will hopefully be able to get through this phase quickly and without delay.

I don’t hate editing, but like many writers, I prefer writing by far. It is just a lot more fun to me to write a book than to edit one. I edit because it is necessary, even if only to fix typos and the like, but I don’t like it and try to avoid spending months and months on editing.

In fact, that’s one of the reason I write cleanly. The better I write, the less editing I have to do. And since I dislike editing, that works out well for me. I highly recommend that any writer who dislikes editing should learn how to write a good first draft in order to minimize editing.

Anyway, I’m still on a roll, so on to Day 18!

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Sixteen

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WORD COUNT: 66,098/66,098 (WRITING PHASE: COMPLETE)

Yes, you read that right. As of today, I finished the first draft of The Superhero’s Test. Yay!

Now, I know that I said I was aiming for 75,000 words, but the story ended up being 9,000 words shorter and I generally dislike padding out a story. A story should be as long as it needs, whether that is 5,000 words or 50,000 words, and no more or less. I might add some more words during the editing phase, but I doubt it will be more than a couple thousand words or so, if even that much, since the story is pretty complete as is.

According to LibreOffice, the book is 220 pages, so if I edit 40 pages a day, as is my goal, then it should take me five days to edit the whole book. That will leave four more days for my copy editor to fix any little typos or errors I made, and since she works very fast and this book isn’t very long, I might be able to actually publish this book before Day 25. I sure hope I can, because it would be awesome to write, edit, and publish a novel in 25 days.

So tomorrow I will start work on the editing phase. I will also probably start writing Book 2, which I will discuss more about here in the coming weeks.

Now, without further ado, let us go to Day 17 and to the final leg of the 25-Day Novel Challenge!

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Fifteen

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WORD COUNT: 60,044/75,000

Today I hit the 60k mark, so that means that I am now 80% through the book, according to the progress bar on my site here. And it definitely feels like the ending is near. The protagonist is about to fight the antagonist and I have a feeling it’s going to be a great fight scene. Really looking forward to writing it tomorrow.

Speaking of antagonists, they can sometimes be some of the funnest characters to write in a story. The antagonist for this book, Master Chaos, is especially fun to write. I won’t go into any detail about him, because I want to keep his personality a surprise for readers, but if you like comic book villains of any sort, I can guarantee that you will like Master Chaos.

Making a good antagonist, while fun, can also be hard. You don’t want an antagonist who is a pushover and poses no threat whatsoever to your protagonist (unless it’s a comedy or maybe a minor antagonist whose sole purpose is to be easily beaten by the heroes for laughs or something like that), but neither do you want an antagonist who is so powerful that you need a Deus ex Machina to defeat him.

A good antagonist will be strong enough to give your protagonist a run for his money, but can still beatable within the rules of the universe. You can make the method to defeat the antagonist unknown at first, but if you’re going to do that, you should throw in subtle clues at various points throughout the story foreshadowing it so that when you do reveal it, it comes across less as a Deus ex Machina and more like an organic and logical part of your story or your story’s universe.

Anyway, that’s my thoughts for today. On to Day Sixteen!

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Fourteen

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WORD COUNT: 56,041/75,000

All right, everyone! We are now on Day 14 of the 25-Day Novel Challenge. I’ve entered the final act of the book and am confident that I will be able to wrap it up by Day 18, which is when I should hit the 75k mark. Pretty excited about that.

Speaking of final acts, it’s always important to have a good ending for a novel. A good ending gives your reader a sense of satisfaction and closure, unless it’s a series novel, but even with a series novel, you want to give some closure, even if you leave some loose ends to be addressed in later books.

I always like writing the last books in a series, because then I can pretty much go crazy and answer all of the major questions and mysteries in the series while doing stuff I couldn’t get away with in the previous books. I always try to make the final book in a series the best and most exciting so that when a reader finishes it, it will feel like a great ending not just to that particular book, but to the series as a whole.

Anyway, onto Day Fifteen!

The 25-Day Novel Challenge: Day Eleven

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WORD COUNT: 44,033/75,000

We are now eleven days into the 25-Day Novel Challenge. By this time next week, I should hit the 75,000 word count, after which I will edit the novel, have it copy-edited, and then publish it on Amazon. Yay!

Speaking of word counts, I have made hitting my daily 4,000 word quota my number one priority every day. Not just every day of this challenge, but every day of my life. If the only thing I get done on any given day of the week is meeting my daily quota, that day is a success in my book.

Why is it so important that I hit my daily quota? Because writing more books is the secret to success in indie-publishing. Or, rather, writing more books that people want to read is the secret to success in indie-publishing. You need to write lots of books that people want to read in order to make any real money at this business.

Among writers, there is a saying that your next book is always your best form of promotion. Other forms of promotion, like price pulses and Facebook ads, can be very effective as well, but for most writers, putting out your next book is always more effective than almost any other form of promotion.

Why that is true is a topic I think I’ll cover tomorrow on Day Twelve. See ya!