In Praise of the Sensitivity Reader

By Samantha Garner

In Praise of the Sensitivity Reader - Samantha Garner

Have considered working with a sensitivity reader? If you’re on the fence—or if you have no idea what a sensitivity reader is—read on!


What is a sensitivity reader? 

A sensitivity reader is a professional who beta-reads writing projects for instances of unconscious bias, inaccuracies, or stereotypes. They draw on their own lived experience and education. They read for specific areas including race, gender, neurodiversity, mental health, LGBTQIA+, disability, and sexual assault representation. 

We all know of a book where the author wildly misrepresented a cultural group or inadvertently reinforced a stereotype. Sensitivity readers help avoid these missteps. A sensitivity reader can highlight potential areas of concern when an author still has time to make adjustments.


What is a sensitivity reader not?

Most writers don’t set out to be jerks. But we all have unconscious bias, and undoing beliefs we were raised with isn’t a smooth journey. There’s a misconception that a sensitivity reader will “cancel” writers. I get that it feels vulnerable to hand someone your work knowing it might upset or offend them, but sensitivity readers are professionals. They’re not there to call you out—they’re there to help you identify issues that your readers may be hurt or harmed by. As long as you come to them with an open mind and a willingness to take their feedback on board, you’ll be fine. They want you to succeed as a writer, after all. 


What’s it like working with a sensitivity reader?

Some publishing houses have room in their budget to hire a sensitivity reader at the editing stage. However, many writers opt to hire a sensitivity reader earlier in the process. That’s what I did. 

I hired two sensitivity readers for my new fantasy novel manuscript, each coming from backgrounds that aligned with those of a couple of characters. At least, as close as possible considering the medieval-ish secondary world setting. Even though my characters wouldn’t have direct analogues to people in our world, I knew that speculative fiction wasn’t exempt from accidentally (or not-accidentally) creating those analogues.  

Was I nervous? Of course! I’m not so arrogant as to believe I have zero unconscious bias anywhere in me. Still, anything my sensitivity readers identified couldn’t be worse than accidentally upsetting a reader who was expecting an enjoyable book.

After a few weeks, my sensitivity readers gave me their feedback. Both submitted a detailed report, while one also provided editorial feedback throughout the manuscript itself. They identified and explained some areas of potential concern I hadn’t thought of, which I was grateful to have pointed out to me. What’s more, their suggestions for improvement considered the story itself and what would make sense for the characters. Win-win!


Can’t I just ask my friends to be sensitivity readers?

This is something I wondered too. If you’re writing a story about, for example, someone who experienced trauma, it might seem obvious to hire a friend with a similar background. 

A few issues could arise in this situation, however. To be blunt: sensitivity readers know what they’re getting into. They chose this line of work. They’re used to managing that emotional labour and setting their own boundaries. Your friend, well-meaning as they are, may find they don’t have the time or mental energy for it. We all have something we could do a sensitivity read for, but that doesn’t mean we’re equipped to analyze an entire manuscript for it and explain its intricacies. Not to mention, our friends usually don’t have the skillset of professional book editors.

And what if your friend reads something inaccurate or hurtful? Will they spare your feelings and tell you everything’s fine, or will they be forced to have an uncomfortable discussion with you? I chose to go with sensitivity readers because I wanted impartiality and honesty. I didn’t want to put my friends in a potentially awkward situation.


Tips for working with a sensitivity reader

Have I convinced you? Great! Now here are some things to keep in mind when working with a sensitivity reader:

  • Ask yourself what your story contributes to the narrative about this group. Does it take focus away from authors better positioned than you to tell this story? Is your time better spent amplifying those voices? It’s worth it to ask these questions and answer honestly.
  • Emotional labour is still labour, and sensitivity readers are professionals who deserve to be paid. There are sensitivity readers out there for many budgets. Even if you do work with a friend, pay them for their time and effort. 
  • Sensitivity readers are not a stamp of approval or a free pass. It’s unreasonable to expect one person to speak for an entire community. Keep looking for other perspectives and keep working to be as accurate and considerate as you can be.
  • Sensitivity readers don’t sanitize your manuscript. They understand that not all story elements will be palatable. Instead, they want to steer unsavoury elements away from being cartoonish, gratuitous, or even interpreted as your beliefs.
  • Don’t take things personally. Remember that this is a professional transaction, and you’ve just been handed a golden opportunity to improve your work and grow as a writer. Embrace it!


Some places you can find sensitivity readers include Facebook groups and databases like the ones at Writing Diversely, Firefly Creative Writing, and Fiverr. Here you can read about their experience, the areas they read for, preferred genres, timelines, rates, and more. 

The insightful suggestions of my sensitivity readers helped me strengthen my book overall. It’s an experience I strongly recommend to any writer able to make that investment in their work.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Samantha Garner is the author of The Quiet is Loud, shortlisted for the 2022 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. A Canadian of mixed Filipino-Finnish background, her character-driven fantasy novels explore themes of identity and belonging. When not writing, Samantha can be found daydreaming in a video game or boring a loved one with the latest historical fact she’s learned.

She can be found online at and on Instagram and Twitter at @samanthakgarner.