Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Words are important and can have a real, tangible impact on people. You likely know this, otherwise you wouldn't be reading a blog post on an editor's website.
The response to an author's words is not always what the author intended, and that's where authenticity reading comes in.
What is authenticity reading?
Authenticity reading is also known as sensitivity reading.
Let's get something straight right off the bat. Authenticity reading is not censorship. Censorship is removing something deemed offensive or unsuitable from a work. Authenticity reading, on the other hand, is when someone goes over a piece of writing to ensure the words are used intentionally and authentically.
Authenticity readers do not censor work; they flag areas of misrepresentation, possible biases, stereotypes, and any potentially offensive content. The goal here is for the author to see the effect of their words from a perspective other than their own.
Using words with an awareness of their effect is called using conscious language. As writers, it is our responsibility to use words with intention—to say what we mean to say. Sometimes, we can use a word or phrase that unintentionally causes a reader discomfort or does harm to a group of people. It doesn't mean we're bad people; it just means we have privileges or biases that cause us to overlook things like certain tropes or phrases.
For example, I might use the word blind casually, not realizing how ableist it is to use disability in a metaphorical sense for something negative. Likewise, I may call someone lame as an insult, not realizing it is an ableist and degrading term. There are many phrases we use every day that we don't think about, but we need to think about them. Authenticity readers can point out words like this that we might have overlooked.
If you want a comprehensive guide on conscious language, I highly recommend editor Crystal Shelley's Conscious Language Toolkit for Writers.
Authenticity reading can apply to tropes as well if a character embodies a harmful stereotype. For instance, the gay best friend trope has harmful potential if that character is portrayed solely as a wing-person or a fashion advisor. That trope boils gay people down to one type of person—someone lacking in complexity who exists solely for the benefit of others. A character like that would need to be fleshed out more to be represented authentically.
Authenticity reading can also catch errors we overlook if we're writing from a viewpoint that is not our own. I'm white, so I move through the world with white privilege. If I write a story from the perspective of a Latinx protagonist, my own experience will not be enough to inform me of my Latinx protagonist's experience. I need a Latinx person (ideally multiple Latinx people) to read over my work and see if I portrayed their experience authentically. This is simply a way of doing your research.
Conscious language and authenticity reading apply to multiple aspects of life: behaviour, social status, sex and gender, body size, physical ability, religion, culture, race, ethnicity, mental illness, trauma, etc.
So, why should you care about authenticity reading?
Hiring authenticity readers will help your words be intentional and authentic.
Having an authentic story will show respect to your readers, and therefore they will respect you and your work.
Being aware of the impact of your words will make you a better writer and help you tell stories that have an impact.
As a writer, you know that you need to do your research and write with intention, and authenticity readers will help you accomplish that. Using conscious language and avoiding harmful tropes is a learning process that will make you a better writer and a better person.
Conscious Language — Rabbit with a Red Pen
What Is Sensitivity Reading? — Dot and Dash LLC
Where to find authenticity readers: