What Is Sensitivity Reading? 

by Georgina Kamsika

Have you ever read something that you knew was incorrect? Sometimes, research has fallen short of convincing people who know better, even though other readers might not notice anything wrong. For those who know, it can be jarring and pull them out of the story. How would you feel if that error was about your life? Your personal history? Your family’s history? Or something intrinsic to who you are?

Sensitivity readers exist as a consultancy resource to offer an authentic perspective regarding how marginalization affects characters, settings, and worldbuilding, and to provide feedback that an author can accept, reject, or question. That feedback can include, but is not limited to, problematic tropes, stereotypes, inaccuracies, and offensive portrayals. Utilizing this feedback, authors improve the representation so that readers who live these experiences can avoid harm and enjoy their books.

The controversy

Books have been recruited into the ongoing culture war that we’re seeing across our society with lurid headlines about Roald Dahl or the James Bond books “being forced” to change. Often, when an author has negative feedback or a book is delayed or withdrawn, the sensitivity readers are blamed.

Sensitivity reading is seen as new, controversial, and headline-grabbing. Changing anything is presented as “woke,” snowflake modern sensibilities. However, this practice has been employed for as long as books have been printed. Some great examples include Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the Bowdlerized version of Shakespeare, or how Grimm and Anderson fairy tales are softened for younger children. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa-Loompas were originally pygmies Willy Wonka imported from “the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle.” Ten years later, Dahl updated them as having “golden-brown hair” and “rosy-white skin,” and Africa became Loompa-land. Dahl was happy to edit his own work. So was Dickens, with another book considered a classic. Dickens went back and removed over two hundred references to anti-Semitism of the Fagin character in Oliver Twist after criticism from a Jewish reader. 

Stories with positive outcomes exist in modern reporting despite the media’s tendency to focus on authors who are less receptive. Recently, Irvine Welsh spoke candidly about when he’d written trans characters, and thought using sensitivity readers would be akin to censorship. However, Welsh said his sensitivity reader had wanted to make the book “as authentic as possible and was incredibly supportive. And it did help to make the book better.” 

Joanne Harris, Chair for the Society of Authors, also made a great point when she tweeted: “If you don’t want to use a sensitivity reader, don’t use one. But if you’ve never used one, then maybe you’re not the person most qualified to talk about what sensitivity readers actually do.”

The process

What sensitivity readers look for depends on their specialty and the manuscript itself. Topics could include race, LGBTQIA+ experiences, disability, and other marginalizations. While what we’re looking for varies, we all look for authenticity. We read through the manuscript, searching for instances of stereotyping, bias, or harmful tropes, and providing cultural, personal, or community-related context to all aspects relevant to our read.

As a biracial British Indian second-generation immigrant, my area of expertise includes my identity, race relations in the UK, especially for the Indian/Desi diasporas, UK anti-immigration politics, Brexit, etc., through to India under the Raj, for both factual or fictional books. I can help with general racism, but I would always recommend finding a closer fit where possible.

With most fiction or non-fiction books, my sensitivity read is completed at the end of the editing process, before or during copy edits. I’ll be given the full manuscript to review or a selection of scenes. Picture books, however, require feedback for the very early script and work-in-progress art stage. A second review of the final art and copy will often be completed.

When reading, I’m working from my personal lived experience, from training, and any background research required, if it’s a particular time period, for example. If it’s authentic, I’ll give it a thumbs up and explain why; if it’s not, I will give suggestions on how to improve the authenticity. These suggestions might be in-line text or links to further resources where they can find more information. 

I take note of initial impressions by using Track Changes in MS Word or comments on a PDF; then, on a second read, I’ll review how those impressions played out. Were people deliberately using stereotypes in order to subvert them later, or was it an accidental problem that needs fixing? I point out good representation, not only the negatives, and try to recommend details that help the story ring true. 

The report ties back to a page number or a reference, so the author knows exactly what the comment refers to. If it is an overall issue, I’ll clarify why they must change something fundamental about the narrative.

Industry uptake

While there is no formal data on the use of sensitivity readers, I have noted an increase in requests and new clients. I worked with ten different publishers in 2021, thirteen in 2022, and sixteen in 2023. There was a similar proportional increase of requests from independent authors. My sensitivity reading peers have also noticed an upward trend, especially from publishers.

Many reads are one-off projects, but I have been working with some publishers since 2020, and I know of at least one publisher who uses readers for every book they release.

Bloomsbury, Bonnier, and Quarto told The Bookseller they had employed sensitivity readers as it was “important in inclusive, forward-thinking publishing.”

Why do it

Creating characters that reflect the world’s diversity is important for writers and readers. However, it’s essential to create that representation authentically. Consider why you’re adding characters different from yourself, and how you will feel if you get aspects wrong. Consider asking for feedback to create your best character rather than worrying about possible bad reviews or social media pile-ons. 


Sensitivity readers have taken the brunt of the media backlash despite having none of the power. We’re freelancers who offer advice and are usually unaware of whether or not this feedback will be utilized. But it’s up to the authors to make any suggested changes.

Authors are going to get it wrong sometimes. The only thing we can all do is write the best, most complex, well-rounded characters we can and be open to feedback if change is necessary.

Author Bio

Georgina Kamsika is a speculative fiction writer born in Yorkshire, England, to Anglo-Indian immigrant parents and has spent most of her life explaining her English first name, Polish surname, and South Asian features. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop 2012 where her first novel, Goddess of the North, started life as a short story. She began sensitivity reading in 2017, and has read for all major publishers and a number of imprints and smaller publishers.