Tag Archive for: race

Working with a sensitivity reader

Have you ever considered working with a sensitivity reader on your writing for your business? Do you even know what a sensitivity reader is?

In my article on “How to edit articles about Black people,” I mentioned that writers who are concerned about diversity and inclusion can hire a reader with specialized skills or background to give feedback on how they might improve their writing in that respect. The readers may be members of the groups the writers are discussing or targeting. This kind of sensitivity seems as if it could help advisors who are trying to appeal to diverse prospects, clients, employees, and others.

To learn more about how using a sensitivity reader works, I hired one to review “How to edit articles about Black people.” This is my report on my experience.

The bottom line: Working with a sensitivity reader can be useful, especially if you don’t work with a community of people who can give you targeted feedback.

Hiring a sensitivity reader

I learned about sensitivity readers in “How to Use a Sensitivity Reader,” an article by writer Judi Ketteler in the Freelance Success newsletter (accessible only to paid subscribers). Luckily for me, Ketteler included contact information for two sources of sensitivity readers. First, I tried the sensitivity reader whom Ketteler used. After that reader didn’t reply to my inquiry entered through her website’s contact form (she responded later, apologizing for being busy), I moved along to the sensitivity readers available through Salt & Sage Books, the other source mentioned by Ketteler.

Salt & Sage Books offers the services of readers from diverse backgrounds.

For example, below are the characteristics of three readers highlighted by Salt & Sage when I was researching this blog post. More detailed profiles are available when you click on the individual profiles.

Reader 1

  • Chinese-American culture
  • “Hapa” or half-Asian culture
  • Tiger parents
  • Complex family relationships
  • Interracial romance
  • Gamer culture
  • San Francisco Bay area
  • Ancient Chinese magic systems

Reader 2

  • Muslim
  • Arab
  • Egyptian
  • Arab Diaspora
  • Post-Colonial People/Themes

Reader 3

  • Regional/cultural expertise growing up in the South (specifically TN)
  • Being in a minority religion (LDS) in the Bible belt
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Music/piano/band, teaching piano
  • Infertility, IVF, adoption
  • Divorce, single parenthood, remarriage, step-parenting, co-parenting

I’m sharing these three lists partly so you can see that a sensitivity reader isn’t just for issues of race.

However, in my case, I needed a reader who was sensitive to the issues of Black people. I mentioned that to Erin Olds, my Salt & Sage contact person, along with the fact that ideally I’d like to work with someone who has experience working with corporate clients, in case I’d have an opportunity to make a referral someday.

Erin gave me two lists of names with links to their profiles: a list of people who would be available to start work almost immediately and a list of people for whom I’d have to wait longer, if their profiles appealed to me more. She also highlighted names of readers experienced working with corporate clients. Only one of those three readers, Mya, was available right away, so I chose to work with them (Note: Mya is non-binary, so I’m using gender-neutral pronouns like “they.”)

Process, timing, and fees

From my initial inquiry to receiving my document with comments took a little over three weeks. The website states that “All edits will take a minimum of 3 weeks.”

First, I had to send a 50% down-payment and sign a surprisingly long legal agreement using DocuSign. Salt & Sage charged a minimum of $65 for sensitivity reading when I sent in my manuscript, but its prices page now shows the minimum as $140, with rates starting at $140 for 10,000 words.

When I checked with Erin about fees in March, she told me:

For sensitivity reading of longer manuscripts, we charge per word. We are actually in the process of increasing our prices, so according to those new prices, we charge .009c/word for a sensitivity read. We have very flexible payment plans, and for clients who have a smaller budget or want to do more up-front work, we are working on expanding our Incomplete Guides series, which give an overview of several identities. (Next two books in the queue: Writing Queer Characters, and Writing Nonbinary Characters.)

If you decide to use Salt & Sage, you can get a 10% discount by using my name.

Then, I sent my document to Erin. All communications go through Salt & Sage staff. You won’t have direct contact with your sensitivity reader.

Sensitivity reading results

I received two documents from Salt & Sage after the sensitivity reading: a marked-up copy of my blog post and a separate letter.

I was relieved to find only two comments on the marked-up version of my blog post. The first suggested elaborating on why word choice is important, and suggested a link to a Brookings Institution article. The second suggested that saying “people with a disability” isn’t always preferred to saying “the disabled,” and it suggested two links. I ended up incorporating all of the links.

The letter that accompanied the marked-up blog post also suggested linking to articles that explain why some people do not capitalize “white.” I didn’t incorporate that information, mainly because I included those links in my NAPFA Advisor column that I linked to in my blog post.

In their letter, Mya said about their perspective that “I am only one person with the perspective of one person. I am not a gatekeeper, nor do I have final say over what you include in your manuscript. My goal is to shine a light on areas that might be improved and give you further resources.” I appreciated that attitude.

I was also grateful for the comment that “I really enjoyed how you both brought your own perspective and referred to the authority of others when it came to this piece. For example, you don’t just tell your audience what to do on the basis of your own authority but defer to organizations and other resources to back up what you’re saying.”

“It takes a village”

It’s corny to say “It takes a village,” but my original blog post only came off as well as it did because it shared what I’ve learned through working with others.

I’d like to highlight several parts of my “village”:

  • The Freelance Success writers community (for subscribers only) was a big help when I was trying to figure out whether to capitalize Black, especially because I grappled with this before Associated Press style started capitalizing the term. Members directed me to some resources I would have taken longer to find on my own.
  • Kevin Adler, the assistant editor whom I work with at the NAPFA Advisor, is much more attuned to racial issues than I am, so I’ve benefited from his guidance.
  • The NAPFA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Initiative, which is raising relevant issues.
  • Understanding Our Differences, a local program that offered the training that introduced me to the idea that the words I use to refer to people make a difference.

Think about trying to develop your own “village.” Consider a sensitivity reader as a way to expand your perspective!




How to edit articles about Black people

Most investment writers rarely discuss race. However, I have the privilege of editing articles related to race—and advocating for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion—in my role as editor of the monthly magazine of an association of financial advisors. This has raised issues for me as an editor when reviewing articles mentioning Black people. At the most mundane level, these are small issues of capitalization and word choice. However, they feed into larger issues of how Black people are treated and perceived. The right choices are “a simple and long-overdue signal of respect for the shared identity, history, and experiences of people who identify as Black,” as discussed in “Recognizing that words have the power to harm, we commit to using more just language to describe places” on the Brookings Institution’s website.

Capitalizing Black

For years, I didn’t capitalize black when referring to race. However, last year I noticed more and more publications using an initial capital in this situation. Even AP style agreed with this change, writing:

AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person. AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses.

This raised a more sensitive question about whether to capitalize White in the racial sense. The magazine decided to adopt initial capitals for White, for reasons I explained in “Words matter, especially for diversity.”

Black or African American?

When the term African American appeared in an article, I did a bit of research because I’ve heard that not all Black Americans embrace that term. The National Association of Black Journalists’ style guide entry for “African American” says:

Not all Black people are African Americans (if they were born outside of the United States). Let a subject’s preference determine which term to use. In a story in which race is relevant and there is no stated preference for an individual or individuals, use black because it is an accurate description of race. Be as specific as possible in honoring preferences, as in Haitian American, Jamaican American or (for a non-U.S. citizen living in the United States) Jamaican living in America.

AP style agrees:

African American is also acceptable for those in the U.S. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow an individual’s preference if known, and be specific when possible and relevant. Minneapolis has a large Somali American population because of refugee resettlement. The author is Senegalese American.

Accordingly, I’m asking my authors who identify someone as African American to confirm that’s how the individual prefers to be identified.

More vocabulary choices

Slaves or enslaved people?

Should you refer to slaves or enslaved people? I wasn’t even aware of this issue until my assistant editor mentioned it.

AP style allows for either term, saying:

The term slaves denotes an inherent identity of a person or people treated as chattel or property. The term enslaved people underlines that the slave status has been imposed on individuals. Many prefer the term enslaved person/people to separate people’s identity from their circumstances. Others prefer the term slave as a way to make a point of the circumstances. Either term is acceptable. Try to determine an individual’s preference.

One lesson that sticks with me from diversity training years ago is that people with disabilities are more than their disabilities. The trainers told me that I should refer to “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” (However, some individuals with disabilities disagree, as discussed in “It’s Perfectly OK To Call A Disabled Person ‘Disabled,’ And Here’s Why” and “Disabled vs disability. Which is right?

Avoid Black as a standalone

A similar line of reasoning suggests avoiding referring to Black as a standalone term, but instead using Black as an adjective. For example, the UofSC Aiken’s “Inclusive Language Guide” (PDF), suggests “Refer to groups as black students, black faculty members, etc., not blacks.”

Try a sensitivity reader?

Writing inclusively and sensitively isn’t just a matter of individual word choices. That’s why some authors—especially book authors—have chosen to hire editors who are called “sensitivity readers.” One sensitivity reader sees her job as “first and foremost to improve the literary quality of a book by steering the author away from one-dimensional portraits and clichés,” as described in “What the Job of a Sensitivity Reader Is Really Like,” a Vulture article. The sensitivity reader said, “Most people are shocked by the blind spots they discover.”

For a journalist’s perspective, read “Gut Check: Working with a Sensitivity Reader” by Jane Hu, which suggests to me that sensitivity readers aren’t just for book-length manuscripts. You may be able to hire someone to work on short pieces of writing. Even getting one article reviewed could open your eyes to issues to look for across all of your communications. Hu’s article also suggests how you can find a sensitivity reader.

The Progressive Style Guide advises,

Avoid vocabulary that extends negative racial, ethnic, or cultural connotations and avoid usage that carries hierarchical valuation or portrays groups of people as inferior, bad, criminal, or less valued than others. At times, such language may be difficult to perceive from the point of view of an oppressor group. Don’t assume you know all the ways that a phrasing may land; take the time to check it out with others.

A sensitivity reader may be more than you can manage for your firm’s newsletter or a blog post. However, it’s always a good idea to get a second set of eyes on your writing, as I’ve often suggested on my blog. When it comes to questions of race, it’s especially helpful to have a reader of the race you’re discussing. However, be wary of overburdening that individual with solving your problems.

Here’s my blog post about working with a sensitivity reader.

Resources to help you edit writing about Black people

My go-to resources

Online tools

  • Alexjs.com is an online tool with the goal of helping you “catch insensitive, inconsiderate writing,” which I learned about in NAPFA’s Diversity + Inclusion Toolkit. Supposedly you can install it in a browser like Google Chrome, but I found it easier to scroll down to the “Demo” section, copy-paste my text into the black box, and then look to see which words Alex highlighted and why. In some cases, Alex suggests replacement vocabulary, such as primary/replica for the computer term master/slave. In other cases, Alex simply alerts you that your word or phrase may be insensitive or “profane.” At this point, Alex doesn’t understand the context of your writing well enough to be decisive in its judgment.
  • PerfectIt proofreading software, which I use to check for errors of consistency and grammar in my writing, has a feature that lets you flag words as sensitive and suggest replacements. The company explains its approach in “The Efficient Editor: How to Write and Edit With Sensitivity.”
  • Microsoft Word apparently is addressing inclusive language, including racial bias, in its version available to Microsoft 365 subscribers, according to How-To Geek‘s “How to Check for Inclusive Language in Microsoft Word.” Thank you, Sonya Dreizler, for alerting me to this!

More resources

Let’s use the right words!

Let’s use words that show respect for Black people. As writers and editors, this is one small way that we can contribute to racial equity.

Of course, even picking the right words doesn’t guarantee that an article will be accurate or appropriate. There might be bigger issues with how the writer approaches the topic. There is a lot more to think about. However, this article is my attempt to share some practical tips from my experience.


NOTE: I updated this post on March 23, 2021, to add a new resource.