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I Had a Sensitivity Reading – and Survived! by Susan Lanigan

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
Susan Lanigan

Susan Lanigan

Recently in the UK, many columnists and literary commentators have dragged themselves into what seems like a “war on woke” and sensitivity reading has been in their sights. They give the impression that this is an act of censorship, taking away one’s freedom of speech. Speaking as someone whose work has been censored, I can safely say this is false.

According to one of these articles, a writer criticised for inappropriate representation was “humiliated” into using a sensitivity reader to vet her prose, while another described such readers as “people who comb manuscripts looking for the potentially offensive”, calling them “a crass development”. Having had a manuscript sensitivity-read myself, for my novel Lucia’s War, I want to correct this misconception.

Firstly, what is a sensitivity reader? This is a person, usually engaged by your publisher, who will provide a specialised edit on your manuscript, usually later on in the process after developmental edits are complete. This reader will point out how an author can accurately portray a character from a historically marginalised or misrepresented culture. An example is the novel Eleanor and Park, where Korean readers pointed out that Park is a common surname in Korea and would not be given as a first name. A sensitivity read on the novel before publication would have eliminated that fault.

The expert reader is usually from a similar background as the culture being referenced. There are many “use cases” for a sensitivity reader – for example, Liz Nugent had writer and body-positive fashion adviser Bethany Rutter look over her novel Our Little Cruelties to help with portrayal of an eating disorder. Donal Ryan also had an unnamed sensitivity reader provide suggestions for his novel Strange Flowers.

In my case, my novel Lucia’s War has a Black Jamaican protagonist, and being a white woman living in East Cork, I knew there would be, let’s say, gaps in my understanding. The read would allow me to keep this important character grounded within her own background and milieu. I’m going to talk a bit now about what my experience did and did not include, to dispel the mystery!

The dire pronouncements of the pearl-clutching columnists did not come to pass. It was not a tense or fraught experience for me as a writer. And no, a sensitivity reader does not wield power over your manuscript – the very idea of a sensitivity reader being like a Bishop making the sign of the cross, swinging incense over your head and intoning “Go my child, your sins are forgiven” is absurd. The reader can make recommendations and the author can implement them or “stet” (leave alone) like any other editorial comment. That said, all the googling in the world cannot make up for the inside baseball, so stets should be rare. Generally the reader will know better than you; that’s why they were hired in the first place.

Another fallacy mentioned above is that the chief role of the sensitivity reader is to remove objectionable content. The reader’s concern will not primarily be with whether or not something is “politically correct”, they will be more interested in whether or not something makes sense. Quite often, Lyeanne would expand on a point I had made and would suggest, “You could always say…” which would go into more detail about some aspect I hadn’t known about. A good sensitivity read is about adding things in, rather than taking things out.

Much of what I learned when implementing the edits encompassed class, code and language. Lucia sometimes speaks in patois, but at the start I was too indiscriminate about how she used different forms of English to navigate her way through society. I underestimated the importance of a grounded trust that precedes familiarity. Cultural nuances came into play – Lucia in early drafts could not make a cup of tea to save her life, but I learned that Caribbean culture is very house-proud and that boys and girls were up early on the weekend cleaning the place. When it came to race, I learned that Lucia would have really had to pick her battles in the society she was in. If you don’t have that constant awareness in your own daily life, it’s harder to bring it in to the prose. That’s just life.

That’s just a sample of the insights I was afforded during my sensitivity read – though perhaps “expert read” is a better term. In any case, I want to cheer loudly for the much-maligned sensitivity read. It was a way for me to keep the narrative grounded and real. It brought more warmth and humanity to the story. It was a learning experience and it was fun. Would I do it again? Certainly. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, it was a pleasure.

(c) Susan Lanigan

About Lucia’s War:

London, 1950. Soprano Lucia Percival has overcome racism and many obstacles to become a renowned opera singer. She is now due to perform her last concert. But she has no intention of going onstage. A terrible secret from her service during the First World War has finally caught up with her.

London, 1917. Lucia, a young Jamaican exile, hopes to make it as a musician. But she is haunted by a tragic separation that is still fresh in her memory – and when she meets Lilian, an old woman damaged by a similar wartime loss, she agrees to a pact that could destroy everything she has fought so hard to achieve.

From the Western Front and the mean streets of Glasgow, to black society in London, Lucia’s story tells a tale of music, motherhood, loss and redemption.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

I graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in English and History in the late 90s, then pursued a Graduate Diploma in I.T. in Dublin City University and a Masters in Writing in NUI Galway.

My first novel White Feathers, a tale of passion, betrayal and war, was selected as one of the final ten in the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, 2013, and published in 2014 by Brandon Books. The book won critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the UK Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 2015.

My second novel, Lucia’s War, also concerning WWI as well as race, music and motherhood, was published in June 2020 and has been named as the Coffee Pot Book Club Honourable Mention in the Modern Historical Book of the Year Award.

The writers who have most influenced my work recently are: Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, Yeats, Graves, Riding, Binchy, Spain, Charlotte Bronte, Dermot Bolger, Andrea Levy and Carson McCullers.

I formerly lived by the sea near Dublin. I now live by the sea near Cork, where I go for walks, get more involved in politics than I bargained for, attempt to manage my mental health, and continue to work as a software developer.

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