On Working with a Sensitivity Reader
What happens between getting an agent and looking for a publisher? (Part 1 of 2)
It’s a damp fall day in the DC area, and The Skin and Its Girl will be published in six months. September was full of writing six essays tied to the book; October was busy with preparing The Bird’s Eye for launch, plus a bunch of other online updates and book-related activities. Life has been one big spreadsheet lately, so I’m eager to get back to drafting the new novel. As I reflect on the past almost-two years of working with my agent, the acquiring editor, and the publishing team, I realize how busy this year has been and how much I’ve learned on the fly.
In this two-parter, I’ll talk about the important tasks that happened over January–June 2021, between starting to work with an agent and the manuscript’s submission to publishers: a subject-matter (sensitivity) read, revision, and submissions. Because the mention of sensitivity reads can be polarizing, I want to share my experiences and demystify the process.
What is a sensitivity read?
When this topic comes up on online professional forums, participants sometimes explode with skepticism (often of the snide variety, e.g., “Hiring someone to be sensitive—what could go wrong?”). The attitude reflects resistance, often uninformed and defensive.
As an indie editor myself, I’m familiar with the task of reading manuscripts with a focus on specific content—i.e., reading as a woman, queer person, Arab American, and/or other identity lenses to flag inaccuracies or biases and ask questions of writers who don’t share my background.
The work is variously called sensitivity reading, authenticity reading, and subject-matter reading, reflecting a few emphases. Far from the fear of “sanitizing” a story, it can help the material achieve accuracy and integrity as much as any good copyedit can. It can also be emotionally draining to do, but as an editor, I like the work. It’s a collaboration with fellow writers who want to learn and who are committed to respecting both their characters and the readers who identify with them. A book meant for a large, diverse readership shouldn’t alienate or stereotype important groups within its own audience.
When is it needed?
If you’re writing a story—of any genre—that shares almost nothing of your own experience, it is fair to ask why you’re drawn to tell that story at all. If you’re writing about people from a historically marginalized background, there are legit ethical questions about appropriation and power dynamics. It also comes down to the artistic problem of who’s likely to tell it better: someone who has a lifetime of personal experience absorbing the nuances, or a curious newcomer. Others have said all this in more detail and better, so there are notes for further reading at the end of this post.
But what about the gray areas? A lifetime of hearing traditional stories, fifteen years of research, travel, and culturally adjacent experiences went into the writing of The Skin and Its Girl’s Rummani family. Like my narrator, I am a queer second-generation Arab American, raised entirely in the US; the emotional core of the story is about this experience of historical dislocation and being different in a way that is culturally taboo in one’s own family. But understanding the differences between being Syrian-Lebanese versus Palestinian, and the importance of my fictional family’s elders, who are immigrants, I suggested to my agent that I include an authenticity read in the round of pre-submission revisions. In other words, while I addressed his editorial suggestions, I’d also find an outside editor to focus on a few specific cultural topics.
It seemed like a good-faith gesture to subject the novel to this scrutiny—to find someone who could objectively comment on any flaws in the portrayals, and who could offer skilled professional feedback. Paying the person who does this labor is important. So, once the novel had a fighting chance of actually getting a publishing deal, I hired a professional editor and translator, Nada Sneige Fuleihan, who speaks both Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian Arabic and whose family emigrated to the US from Lebanon. The Nakba is personal in her family, and so is the use of Arabic and ESL among characters of different generations and education levels.
How did it help The Skin and Its Girl?
I wrote my novel from many personal experiences, yet my novel’s cast includes a lot of lives that are unlike mine. While this is a reality of writing fiction in almost every genre, the delicate identities are these:
being a Palestinian immigrant in the 1950s,
being a native Arabic speaker in the United States,
sharing an identity with people who are still actively persecuted and currently on the brink of full revolt in the West Bank, while the US does little to intercede (not for this, and not now). The details matter, both geopolitically and emotionally.
These identities are beside, of course, the fabulist detail of my narrator’s cobalt-blue skin—which doesn’t have a sociocultural index in the United States, is a marker of inexplicable “otherness,” and might be entirely a device of the narrator’s own invention.
Focusing on the three points above, the editor, Nada, provided invaluable help. For example, there’s a scene where Saeeda, one of the elders, is disgusted by her adult daughter’s unkempt apartment, and she begins cleaning up. I had her mutter, “Ya hayawan,” which means animal. Besides being a common-enough surname in Egypt and an epithet a Syrian Arabic teacher of mine used on her sons, Nada felt this was too strong for the situation, and instead suggested, “Shu hal karkaba,” or What a slob. (But if I were to keep the stronger insult, she reminded me to use the feminine form, hayawaneh.) It’s a place where my research, study of Arabic, and experience with other Arabic speakers led me to get the connotation wrong and make two errors. The spirit of the remark was right, but the word wasn’t.
She also flagged some similar wobbles in a few of my character Nuha’s exaggerations, and she suggested some familiar Palestinian Arabic expressions that Nuha and Saeeda (the elder immigrant women) might use between each other when English speakers are present but not part of the conversation. She reported no factual errors and praised the novel’s emotional core.
It’s important to note that one editor’s work isn’t the collective opinion of every reader from a given background. But by writing a story that was personal to me and to people I care about, directing it to a wide readership but especially readers who know and care about Palestinian history, supplementing my knowledge with research, and having a professional check my work, I feel as ready as I’ll ever be for this story to meet its audience.
Finding an editor and other resources
I found Nada through a shared colleague, an Arabic–English translator I’d met at the AWP conference in 2019. I’d also asked around among friends and received suggestions. I went with Nada, however, because she brought strong personal experience as well as an established professional workflow. I trusted her to do thorough and helpful work on time, which matters when on a deadline, and to offer any critical feedback in a constructive way.
If your network comes up dry, other good places to start are online directories of freelance editors. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a free searchable database of editors who specialize in sensitivity reads.
Or if you’re not at the point in your project where the expense is justifiable, honest self-reflection is never a waste of time, nor is learning exactly what the point of sensitivity read is. These are useful:
From How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alex Chee’s advice to writers, excerpted online in Vulture here, is a popular resource.
Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate: A Provocation is a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of “fluctuating literary power and authorial privilege, about whiteness and what we really mean by the term empathy” (from the publisher).
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: A Practical Approach takes a craft-focused look at how writing outside the author’s identity can succeed or fail.
Rebecca Makkai’s Lit Hub essay “How to Write Across Difference” shares her problems and solutions as she, a straight woman, wrote The Great Believers, a novel about gay characters during the AIDS crisis in Chicago.
If you want to offer your services as a sensitivity reader, the EFA booklet Sensitivity Reads: A Guide for Editorial Professionals by Ebonye Gussine Wilkins and Lourdes Venard is a concise guide.