Your podcast probably needs a sensitivity reader. Here's how to use one

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Diversity is important. It helps present a wide variety of experiences that open up new avenues for storytelling and showcasing the vast number of different ways to be human. 

But if you’re writing about a lived experience outside your own — especially of a person from a marginalized group — it’s hard to know whether you’re representing that experience accurately and respectfully. That’s why in fiction, specifically fiction podcasts, many creators use sensitivity readers. These are experts who can give honest feedback and suggestions about how to write thoughtfully about a marginalized group, helping to ensure that the piece is free from harmful stereotypes or bias. 

But what about nonfiction? If you’re interviewing real people and telling things as they are, do you really need that extra step in the writing process? I’m surprised by how many nonfiction creators ask this question, and I always answer: yes. In this article, I’m going to tell you why.

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What is a sensitivity reader?

A sensitivity reader is a person living with a specific identity or combination of identities, such as a trans person, a Black woman, or someone who uses a wheelchair, who uses their lived experience to look over the work you’re creating that features that identity, usually through a character with it, and provides feedback to ensure it is being represented thoughtfully and authentically. 

This can be anything from providing a few notes on language, to helping develop a character’s backstory, to explaining why you may want to retool a plot point that comes off as disrespectful. It’s not just about ensuring you don’t accidentally offend your marginalized readers; sensitivity readers can provide specific, authentic details from their own lived experience that enrich your story, and may even inspire new concepts and directions. Sensitivity readers aren’t just a basic way of covering your blind spots: they make you a better writer.

Why nonfiction podcasts need sensitivity readers

So with all of that said, why would you need a sensitivity reader in nonfiction if you’re not creating a character from scratch? Because regardless of whether it’s fictional, you’re still telling a story, and it matters how you represent the parts of that story that you may not necessarily be familiar with.

Imagine that you’re a cisgender person who hosts a podcast about clothes and fashion, and you decide to look at the recent trend of companies created to sell clothing catered to transgender people and their style needs, like Both& and For Them. When working on the episode, you hire a trans sensitivity reader to take a look at the outline, interview selections, and final cut. This person can help you phrase questions in a way that is respectful to your subjects, recommend angles to approach the story that are unique, insightful, and interesting to both cis and trans listeners, and even recommend resources and contacts they have in the trans community that may be helpful. Think of them like a production consultant with a very specific field of expertise, dedicated to helping you present the facts and tell a story that will inform and inspire.

A sensitivity reader is like a spell-check for your social blind spots.

In the realm of audio, sensitivity readers can go beyond the writing and help with production choices as well, whether it’s recommending a culturally relevant piece of music to underscore a scene, helping to transcribe an interview with a subject whose accent you’re unfamiliar with, or mentioning something you can do to make that episode more accessible to that particular group. 

An example of the latter is when Kit Addams, who sensitivity reads for a character’s dyslexia in Where the Stars Fell, recommended that I make the show’s transcripts available in the font Open Dyslexic, a font created by and for dyslexic people to make reading easier. While not all sensitivity readers will be interested in going that in-depth with their work, discussing what you want out of the arrangement when finding the best person for your project will help you learn what options are available to you and what that project may need.

Open Dyslexic, a font made by and for dyslexic people to help with some symptoms of dyslexia. Image source: OpenDyslexic.org

Sensitivity readers are especially helpful when tackling delicate and specific subjects that, for someone outside that identity, can be easy to misrepresent. There are a lot of really unfortunate and common narratives about people with autism that are easy to avoid when you work alongside an autistic sensitivity reader to tell a story involving that community. While the need for a sensitivity reader is more obvious on a narrative nonfiction or documentary-style podcast than your average chat show, any show can benefit. If you’re interviewing someone from a marginalized community about their lived experience, having a sensitivity reader look over your questions beforehand (and maybe recommend a few!) can give you peace of mind and enhance your interview.

That peace of mind is one of the most helpful things a sensitivity reader can give. Just like you’d have a trusted friend look over an important email for any typos or grammatical errors before hitting send, a sensitivity reader is like a spell-check for your social blind spots, ensuring the focus is on your amazing story and not any accidental ignorance within it.

How to hire a sensitivity reader

So how does one go about hiring a sensitivity reader? (And yes, this is a paid role). There are plenty of ways. Tons of blogs and databases exist with ways to find the type of person you’re looking for, including Writing Diversely, Salt and Sage, and the Binders Full of Sensitivity Readers Facebook group. Don’t be afraid to chat with a few to see whose skill set best fits your project. 

Once you’ve found someone to work with, the first thing to do is relax: they’re there to improve your piece, not call you out on your mistakes. Just like a general editor, you’re hiring this person to seek out the places in your writing and production that need fine-tuning — from a specific perspective. Being told that you need to change a word, or retool a point, isn’t a failure on your part to be a good and empathetic person; it just means that you’ve recognized your blind spot and have done the work to find someone that will point them out to you. That’s professionalism and commitment to your craft.

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