Listen to the complete audio interview by clicking here.
Eight years ago, publishing veteran Edwina Perkins planned a sensitivity reader workshop for a writer’s conference. Nearly 400 writers attended the conference that year. No one attended her workshop.
“The conference director at the time said to me, ‘Edwina, don’t be discouraged. One day people will want to hear what you have to say.’”
That time has come. Christian publishing has renewed its commitment to increase the number of diverse titles as well as diverse representation on retail shelves. However, accurate representation must be a priority. As the newest co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, Edwina has developed a new resource for writers called Sensitivity Between the Lines (also known as Sensitivity BTL). The goal of this resource is to ensure that books featuring diverse characters or content offer an authentic portrayal of marginalized communities.
On our Books & Such blog, we want to equip you with resources to support your writing career. Today’s topic is an important conversation for all writers, no matter your background. I’ve excerpted highlights from my recent conversation with Edwina in this post and our complete audio interview is linked here. At the end of this post, I’ve included additional resources as well.
Edwina, why did you create Sensitivity Between the Lines?
The goal of Sensitivity Between the Lines is to facilitate the authentic portrayal of marginalized communities.
To do this, I match authors with someone in a marginalized community. In this relationship, the author can learn and ask questions. It’s a safe environment for those who are just stepping into this concept for the first time.
What is the difference between a project that was reviewed by a sensitivity reader versus a project that wasn’t?
I have two words for you: authenticity and believability.
When a diverse reader picks up a book that includes a narrative about their culture or community, and the writer says something that doesn’t line up, two things are going to happen: First, the reader will probably put the book down, and second, they’re not going to encourage their friends to read the book.
What are common stereotypes that writers should eliminate from their storylines?
Not all African-American young men are angry or jailed for doing drugs. Not all Asians possess IQs of 200. Likewise, not all Latinos or Hispanics* are loud and emotional. These are a few of many common stereotypes that writers should be careful to avoid.
Can you give an example of a book that needed a sensitivity reader?
YES! There was one children’s book that was published in–well, I’m just going to say the 2010s–about slaves celebrating their master’s birthday. Their master happened to be George Washington. I asked, “What slave– who is owned–wants to celebrate their master regardless of who he is?”
I wish there had been a sensitivity reader. If so, that book wouldn’t have made it to an editor. But, if it got to an editor, then a sensitivity reader still could have been used and that book wouldn’t have made it to the shelves.
Other than writers, who else needs a sensitivity reader?
Anyone in the publishing industry who works with marginalized communities needs a sensitivity reader.
I had a lot of respect for an editor who asked me to read a book that he was attempting to edit. The writer was African-American, and he was using terminology and phrases that this editor knew nothing about. The first thing the editor said to me was, “I have no idea what Juneteenth is.”
That’s really cool, Edwina! I love that the editor looked at the content, and there was a spark in the editor’s mind that said, “This would be worth me stopping to get some trained feedback on it to make sure we are conveying a message that really honors people.”
Okay, here’s a tough question: What are some of the objections to using a sensitivity reader?
Sometimes people are reluctant because they don’t want their writing censored. Another reason can be lack of willingness to learn why the writing doesn’t work for diverse communities.
I wonder if there are writers who feel overwhelmed and avoid writing diversity. Yet, what are we losing, especially in Christian publishing, if our books don’t include diverse characters or content?
What we’ll have is an unrealistic view of the culture and times that we’re living in. If the statistics are correct, by the end of 2020, there were more children under the age of 10 coming from diverse homes than not.
Without diversity, we are not accurately representing our world.
Edwina, let’s talk about your new resource, Sensitivity Between The Lines. Tell us more about how a writer can begin the process.
First, this resource falls under the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Writers can contact me at SensitivityBTL@gmail.com and provide a brief synopsis of their book. I’ll provide the full guidelines about the process and send a questionnaire. Based on that information, I’ll connect them with a sensitivity reader.
Sensitivity readers are men and women with expertise, so this is a paid resource. The cost will be spelled out in the contract.
Finally, Sensitivity BTL isn’t limited to race. One of our sensitivity readers is Asian and blind, so we also want to provide sensitivity reading for those writing about disabilities.
How is Sensitivity BTL going so far?
I’ve connected a number of readers and writers. It’s been positive all the way around. The readers are excited to offer their expertise and that someone wants to learn about their community.
READERS, IT’S YOUR TURN! JOIN TODAY’S CONVERSATION: What are your takeaways or questions from Edwina’s interview? If you’ve used a sensitivity reader, we’d love to hear about your experience. Finally, do you have any experiences to share about including diverse characters or voices in your writing projects?
- Sensitivity Between the Lines, Writing Diversity with Authenticity by Edwina Perkins
- Writers Need Sensitivity Readers–a podcast interview with Linda Goldfarb and Edwina Perkins
- “Should You Use a Sensitivity Reader” by Rachelle Gardner
*There’s a lot of discussion about the various terms associated with Latin identity such as: Latino, Latina, LatinX or Hispanic. We acknowledge the diverse opinions around the different terms as well as the lack of consensus in the Latin community so for now, we’ve used the traditional identifiers.
About Edwina Perkins…
Edwina Perkins is an award-winning writer, freelance editor, speaker, and a sensitivity reader. She is the Managing Editor of Harambee Press—an imprint that seeks to publish ethnic writers—with Iron Stream Media. As the newly-named co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference, Edwina loves the excitement of writers and watching them develop in their craft. She serves on the Word Weavers International Advisory Committee and is also a freelance writer for Guideposts Magazine. After thirty years away, she loves calling North Carolina home again. Edwina is a wife, mother of four adult children, and grandmother of two.