Sensitivity Readers: An Interview With Cain Wilson

 

This image depicts a purple sun on a white background and overlaid with the words "Exploring the need for / Sensitivity Readers / a blog series / by E.J. Dawson, Tara Jazdzewski, Alex Woodroe, Ashley Dawn, Fay Lane and Alexa Rose". To the right of this image are a series of words arranged beside a black triangle, and from the top, the words read "disability / race / orientation / culture / sex / gender / age / beliefs".

As part of multi-site dive into sensitivity readers and the work they do, today I am exploring sensitivity reading for LGBTQIA+ themes with Cain Wilson. He uses he/they pronouns and is a professional sensitivity reader.

Cain Wilson on Sensitivity Reading

As I sat down to write this article, Scrivener open, cursor blinking, I did a quick search about opposing viewpoints on sensitivity readers. The returned pages were a torrent of opinions about the unnecessary need for sensitivity edits. Without pointing fingers, one page described these editors as opinionated, non-professional people. But in my experience, that is not true.

A sensitivity reader is not a censor. They do not wield red highlighters with abandon or return shredded manuscripts. In my talks with these professionals, I saw a passion in their words and an abundant desire to help authors tell the best versions of their stories. 

Cain Wilson is a freelance sensitivity reader who sees this role as a way to help others get a more authentic manuscript.

“I liked the idea of getting to talk about my lived experiences to help [authors] write characters who are more true to the world,” Cain told me.

What it means to be a sensitivity reader

In this context, it is important to discuss what a sensitivity reader does. Like any editor, a sensitivity reader examines a manuscript while paying special attention to a certain type of detail. Cain reads for LGBTQIA+ content, so he provides feedback based on his experiences. He points out where the language is troubling or character portrayals do a disservice to people of that group. Authors usually accept this feedback, but they can resist big changes.

“I think when a sensitivity reader suggests big changes, there will always be some hesitance involved, and I can understand that,” Cain said. “When you work hard on something, it sucks to hear that something has to change, especially if that something is big.”

Nowhere does a sensitivity reader censor or demand the removal of any part of a manuscript. Like any editor, it is their role to point out areas of concern and suggest improvements. And as with a line or content editor, a sensitivity reader will engage with the author, answer any questions, and help the author understand the need for change. Cain described a client who was receptive to given advice, but since Cain was suggesting a large change to the client’s central plot, he had to walk the author past any hesitations.

The toll of reading

There is another side to sensitivity reading: the toll this work takes on the reader. 

“It gets tiring when people get the same things wrong,” Cain said. He went on to say sensitivity reading can be challenging when the same incorrect portrayals appear time and again. 

 One of the challenges involves a sensitivity reader’s scope. A lone reader cannot observe and correct every problematic moment in a manuscript. Where an editor can draw upon years of education, standards, protocols, and experiences, a sensitivity reader must rely on their lived experiences and the authenticity of their own voices.

Cain gives an apt example, saying, “If a potential client is looking for the experience of a trans man who’s been on T and been affirmed his whole life then I’m not the guy for it.”

Some sensitivity readers would be comfortable extending their experiences to the very boundaries of their lived experiences. Cain is not one of them.

“Trans people are not a monolith,” he said. “I’ve had a person in the past ask me to do a reading for a trans woman, and I told them they were better off asking a trans woman to read for them.”

Sensitivity reading: an avoidable need

In some circumstances, these requests and any problems in a manuscript might come from a place of malice, aversion, and bigotry. But Cain thinks the issue is largely a lack of research. The cause for this lack might be problematic in and of itself. However, a writer can take the initiative to avoid faux pax moments and issues that are systemic and immediately troublesome.

“Sometimes it’s just not your story to tell,” Cain said.

When a writer lacks the personal experience to make their story authentic, a sensitivity reader can step in. They draw the author’s attention to inauthentic moments. Their goal is to help the manuscript reach the broadest audience while telling the best version of its story.

Cain Wilson studied Interactive Media at Daytona State College in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is a professional photographer, and he offers writing services alongside sensitivity readings. His site can be found at CainWilson.com, and he is on Twitter @CainMWilson.

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