What’s a Sensitivity Reader and Where Do You Find One?

Abi Wurdeman
March 1, 2024

Sensitivity readers are increasingly common in modern publishing and can be a huge help when it comes to writing a better story. They provide suggestions for going deeper with compelling themes and crafting authentic, complex characters.

So why is sensitivity reading such a hot-button issue for some creatives?

Some of it has to do with misunderstandings about the role these professionals play in shaping a story. I also personally believe that there’s some unacknowledged fear at play, so allow me to be transparent about my own feelings:

Sensitivity reading is an intimidating concept. It involves asking a stranger to point out how our writing might inadvertently cause harm to others. Not a fun Thursday.

And some of us, myself included, can feel a little panicky when someone suggests we’ve missed the mark because we fear it’s a judgment about who we are. We may even feel a little defensive.

But this is a discomfort worth pushing through because working with sensitivity readers can make our writing and our world better. It’s also through the experience itself that we come to understand that it’s not about judging the writer; it’s about improving the work.

So I hope you’ll stick with me as we explore what sensitivity readers have to offer, how to find these professionals, and how to get the most out of the process.

What is a Sensitivity Reader?

A sensitivity reader is a type of professional editor. You pay this person to review your manuscript (or part of it) and provide feedback on their area of expertise, just as you would a proofreader or developmental editor.

What makes this role unique is the type of expertise. A sensitivity reader focuses on an author’s depiction of characters and themes related to a specific lived experience.

For example, if your protagonist has a disability but you don’t, you might hire a sensitivity reader from the disability community to make sure your representation of that character aligns with the true experience of disability and not simply your assumptions about it.

In other words, sensitivity readers are here to help writers craft their characters with an insider’s perspective. You’d be looking for the same thing if you asked a lawyer to check your crime novel for accuracy. 

This person can also help you avoid inadvertently offensive content that might perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

You can find sensitivity readers from a wide range of communities, including race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and mental health. There are also readers who will offer insight on specific trauma experiences like abuse and pregnancy loss.

Most sensitivity readers earn their expertise through a combination of their own personal experiences and studies specific to the culture or topic they read for.

Is Sensitivity Reading a Form of Censorship?

No. Sensitivity readers provide suggestions for portraying characters and themes with greater accuracy, respect, and nuance. You’re free to take or leave their feedback. 

Even if a publisher pressures you to make changes based on a sensitivity reading, it’s not censorship any more than it would be if your publisher wanted you to change the ending or restructure the second act.

You might hear critics of sensitivity reading complain that this type of editing compromises authentic self-expression for the sake of political correctness. 

But here’s the thing: authenticity is the whole point of sensitivity reading.

It’s about portraying human beings and their experiences in their full complexity, which should always be our goal both as fellow earth-dwellers and as storytellers.

Why Hire a Sensitivity Reader?

A person in a wheelchair discusses something on a computer screen with a person who is not in a wheelchair.

There are many reasons you might hire sensitivity readers, but below are some of the most common. If a primary or secondary character:

  • Is a different race than you
  • Belongs to the LBGTQIA2S+ community and you don’t
  • Has a disability and you don’t
  • Experiences mental health challenges you haven’t experienced
  • Is part of an ethnic community that is not your own
  • Has a backstory or central conflict involving trauma experiences you’re not personally familiar with 

…then hiring a sensitivity reader might be a good idea.

Of course, imagination is the best part of writing fiction. And ultimately, our goal as authors is to imagine how a unique character would behave under a specific set of circumstances. 

So some writers might wonder why they have to run their portrayal of a fictional person by anyone else. Allow me to clarify why this input is so valuable:

It Improves Accuracy

Because a sensitivity reader has lived a life similar to the one you’re inventing, they can help you fill in details you might have missed in your research.

Might some aspects of your depiction of depression be unrealistic? Is there an assistive technology that your visually impaired character would almost definitely use? A sensitivity reader will tell you. 

It Helps You Overcome Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias refers to the assumptions and stereotypes that creep into our perceptions without our realizing it.

This concept is probably one of the biggest reasons some writers resist working with sensitivity readers, especially as it pertains to race in the U.S. We like to believe we’d never stereotype people, consciously or unconsciously. It’s also more comfortable to think that something we write can only be hurtful if we intend for it to be.

The fact is, we’re all wandering around with accidental, unconscious bias. Every last one of us. And as authors, we have a platform, which means when our assumptions sneak into our writing, they can become part of someone else’s unconscious bias. 

Sensitivity readers are really good at pointing these issues out in a helpful and professional way.

Accurate, Thoughtful Representation Matters

Majority voices dominate literature, which means when we see minority characters in books, they’re often written through the lens of authors who exist outside that culture. This has led to countless harmful depictions, whether the storyteller intended that harm or not.

Minority ethnic groups are often reduced to stereotypes or limited to the same devastating storylines. Characters with disabilities exist solely to inspire. Mental illness is either a punchline or inevitably ends in tragedy.

The more we see these types of representations, the more we internalize them. Stories contribute massively to our unconscious bias, and that bias doesn’t only manifest in the novels we write. It also informs the way our society approaches everything from hiring to infrastructure to public policy.

Yes, writing is self-expression. But it’s also a responsibility. Sensitivity readers help us think through that responsibility.

The Sensitivity Reading Process

So let’s say you decide to work with a sensitivity reader. How does it work?

Many writers choose to share their manuscript with a sensitivity reader after their developmental edits but before line edits and proofreading. That way, the reader sees the final version of the story, but you haven’t spent time and money perfecting your work line-by-line before your reader has had a chance to give feedback.

This kind of timing works great if, for example, you’re writing a romance in which one of the love interests happens to be of a different race from you. Most likely, your reader’s notes will regard character descriptions, dialogue, or perspective—things you can safely change after a developmental edit.

But if you’re writing a romance in which race is the obstacle for the two lovers, there’s a greater chance you’ll get feedback on more significant aspects of the story. In that case, you might choose to consult a sensitivity reader before a developmental editor.

You can also ask your reader for a (paid!) meeting during your plotting process so you can share your vision for the story early on. That gives them an opportunity to raise big-picture concerns before you start drafting.

However you do it, keep in mind that most sensitivity readers must be booked far in advance. Start looking for one before you need them and be respectful of their timeline.

Once they’ve read your manuscript, they’ll provide a report with their feedback.

Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Runners leap over a hurdles on a track.

As with any part of the writing process, a sensitivity read can come with a few hiccups. Here are a few challenges you might encounter along the way:


It’s hard to invite someone to tell us if our portrayal of a marginalized group is hurtful or short-sighted. It can feel like you’re about to be judged or you might feel guilty if they bring up an issue you feel like you should have seen.

My advice?

First, accept that it’s going to be uncomfortable and remind yourself that the discomfort will ultimately be worth it. 

Second, know that sensitivity readers are there to help you see your own blind spots, not shame you. They are professionals who know you care about respect and authenticity—that’s why you hired them. 


Most sensitivity readers are well-versed in issues surrounding the representation of their community; their suggestions aren’t informed solely by their personal experiences. They may even have a degree in a specific area of cultural studies.

Nevertheless, one person cannot speak for an entire culture or demographic. Things that feel problematic to them might not seem that way to another member of their community and vice versa.

This is why it’s important to do research in addition to hiring a reader. If you have the budget for it you might consider working with multiple sensitivity readers.

Also, be aware that a sensitivity reader’s guidance is not a guaranteed shield against criticism. But thanks to your experience with your reader, you’ll have practice considering that input with a cool head and open heart. 


Sensitivity readers cost money. Like any other type of editor, they provide a specialized and time-consuming service. Additionally, their work requires them to spend time with topics and stereotypes that are painful or bring back difficult memories. It can be emotionally draining work.

In other words, these are professionals you definitely need to pay. This may limit the number of readers you’re able to hire, and that gets tricky if you’re a self-published author with a diverse cast of characters. 

I recommend factoring sensitivity readers into your budget from the very beginning. Then give careful consideration to which aspects of your story stand to benefit most from a sensitivity read. Prioritize those.

Choosing the Right Sensitivity Reader

There are several databases you can search for sensitivity readers. A few popular ones include:

Ask your writing community for referrals, too.

When it comes to selecting a reader, take a look at their specific area of expertise, qualifications, and testimonials. These will give you clues as to whether or not they fit your needs.

Sensitivity readers typically understand the writing process and publishing industry in addition to having loads of cultural insight. If you want someone who’s also familiar with young adult fiction or dystopian sci-fi, you can probably find them.

That’s not to say they’ll provide developmental feedback—they won’t—but they will be able to keep the context of your genre in mind as they review your work.

Give any potential reader enough details so they can determine whether they think this is a good fit. Mention things like:

  • The issue or culture you want them to read for
  • Genre
  • Intended audience
  • Word count
  • Ideal timeline

Be as clear about your expectations as you can and ask questions upfront. That way, you can both be sure this collaboration will work for you before you jump into the reading process.

Tips for a Smooth Collaboration

A smiling person in a suit sits at a computer in a turquoise colored room.

As you can imagine, this process can get tricky without clear communication and an open mind. Here are some quick tips for ensuring things go well:

Give a heads-up about triggering topics - Does your novel contain detailed or potentially upsetting scenes of things like violence or self-harm? Mention it upfront. Sensitivity readers have to tap into their own lived experiences to help you out. Give them the opportunity to set boundaries on how deep they’re willing to go.

Be clear about your timeline - Let your reader know where you are in your writing process, when you’ll have a draft ready for them, and when you hope to receive their report.

Don’t ask them to read on behalf of a community they’re not a part of - Being part of one marginalized group doesn’t qualify them to speak to every minority’s experience.

Don’t ask your friend to do it - Not only is this a job for a professional, but you’d be asking your friend to put themselves in an emotionally vulnerable position. 

Never throw your reader under the bus - Remember, they can’t speak for everybody. If someone criticizes your depiction of a culture, resist the temptation to reference your reader by name as proof that someone “signed off” on your storytelling. 

Sensitivity readers are here to give you the insight you need to make knowledgeable decisions and write great characters. They’re editors, not insurance policies.

Let Your Community Help

The writing life is full of challenges like this one. Whether we’re battling it out with writer’s block, facing a fear of rejection, or finding the courage to seek a professional’s honest and valuable feedback, authorship is a constant exercise in vulnerability.

That’s why it’s so important to have a supportive community of fellow writers.

Still looking for your people? Join us in Dabble’s Story Craft Café. It’s an online writing community that’s free to Dabblers and non-Dabblers alike. Swap tips, find critique partners, join live word sprints, and more.

Click here to get started and we can all embark on this bold adventure together.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.