The publishing world is changing, I believe in large part, because advancements in technology is giving people more of a voice. And this is a good thing. One of the key things of note is the issue of representation in novels, and how poor representation is harmful.
For me, personally, I understand these concerns. I’ve been quite open about the fact I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. People associate this with obsessive cleaning, counting, and washing hands. I’m not a clean freak. I don’t have any set numbers. Though occasionally I use too much sanitiser. Also, a family member of mine has epilepsy, and I regularly see the misconceptions people have about the condition.
Misrepresentation can occur across many areas, including, but not limited to, culture, medical conditions, mental health, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Poor representation is harmful. It can perpetuate stereotypes and alienates readers in that group.
One of the ways that authors are attempting to address this is to engage a sensitivity reader. But when is the best time to do that?
I’d like to point out now that the use of a sensitivity reader should not be an author’s only tool when trying to ensure that they deal with issues of representation in an appropriate way. And it definitely shouldn’t be the first port of call. Research is important, especially during the plotting and early stages of drafting. Don’t rely on “what you know” as it’s likely what you know is tainted by stereotypes rather than reality. And research can include talking to people.
For example, one of my stories including a subplot involving a survivor of sexual assault. As I haven’t experienced what my character had, and something nagged at the back of my mind as I was doing my first round of revision. I asked for some advice from some author friends who had. My author friends were very supportive, and helped me with solutions to take away the problematic issues that arose from my ignorance. And I was grateful that I was made aware of the issue early.
Research should give you a good basis for starting your story. And if you’re like a lot of authors, you would only want early drafts to be viewed by trusted readers, so this is not the time for a sensitivity reader. But it’s probably a good idea to asks your readers to give you a heads up for any red flags for representation.
Once you have your story to a point where you’re comfortable with sharing it beyond your inner sanctum, this would be a good time to engage a sensitivity reader (in my opinion).
You don’t want your story before an agent with poor representation in it. And, if your agent misses it, you don’t want your story before an editor with poor representation in it. And if your editor misses it, you don’t want your story out with advance reader copies with poor representation in it. And in the unlikely event that it makes it past ARCs with poor representation, you don’t want your story on the shelf with poor representation in it. While an agent and an editor should be helping authors identify problematic issues in a story, it’s your name on the cover, and you should be taking whatever steps you need to in order to ensure that your novel is the best novel it can be.
And, in my opinion, you also don’t want a sensitivity reader to be giving you feedback at a point where you feel like your novel is basically complete as it could make you resistant to changes.
Which leads me into the next important point. If you engage a sensitivity reader, listen to them. Take onboard their feedback and incorporate it into your story. If you use a sensitivity reader, and you ignore their feedback, then you could be alienating your first reader. People who do sensitivity reads are doing it because they want good representation in novels. They aren’t out to wreck your story.
Now this is something else that is important to consider and understand. Everyone has different experiences, and having a sensitivity reader is not a get out of jail free card to stop people being offended by representation in your story. You still could have people saying your portrayal is unrealistic as what you’ve written doesn’t reflect their experiences. You may want to engage more than one reader, especially if your first reader highlights issues that are problematic.
Readers expect authors to do their homework and get things right. Even though you’re writing fiction, representation is important. If you were writing a novel about pilots, your reader would expect you to have researched pilots, planes and airports. If you’re writing a story about someone with a mental health condition like OCD, your reader would expect that you had researched OCD, the triggers, the treatments and the condition’s impact on people with OCD. This goes for cultural groups, sexual orientation, gender identity, medical conditions.
By no means am I perfect in this area. I am striving to do better with every novel I write. I hope that you do too.
Sharon M. Johnston is a New Adult and Young Adult author from sunny Queensland. Her OCD has resulted in Sharon making way too many bead bookmarks, way too many cat t-shirts and way too many toys. It’s also result in her breaking down in tears, calling for support, messaging friends for help and withdrawing from family and friends. She gets annoyed with people who don’t have OCD think they do because they’re clean freaks. If your obsessions and compulsions don’t cause you pain, it’s probably not OCD.