Tuesday, September 6, 2016

We Need to Do Better: Receiving Sensitivity Feedback

This entire blog can be summed up by a quote from one of my favorite books, Confessions of a Shopaholic:  "If you bother to ask someone's advice, then bother to listen to it."

One of the manuscripts I recently completed is about the relationship between a trans woman and a demisexual woman. I did a lot of research before writing this book: investigating what goes into gender reassignment surgery, reviewing my notes from a class I took on gender and sexuality in college, pulling from my own experiences with trans people in my life. I spent more time drafting this manuscript than the three before it combined. But since I really wanted to get things right, once I finished, I went on the lookout for sensitivity readers. I'm not saying this to get a pat on the back. I'm telling you because of the response I got from one of my readers, who I'll call A.

For the most part, A offered very helpful insights about little things. Microaggressions, words that are such a part of common vernacular that I didn't realize they're offensive (to people of all minorities), etc. But there was one scene A very strongly objected to. It happens to be a very important scene that set off a chain of events throughout the plot.

I'll be 100% honest. My initial, gut reaction was "My other sensitivity readers didn't have a problem with this scene." But I didn't say that, because A is a person with experiences and opinions that do not belong to anyone else. Instead, I slept on it. I googled. The next morning, I called B, a good friend and gay writer. I explained the situation and asked him for advice. His immediate reaction was, "A is being overly sensitive." We spent an hour on the phone talking about whether I needed to change anything. We discussed alternatives to the scene as written. I read him A's comments. As soon as we realized that I was talking him into seeing A's point of view, we both knew the scene had to be changed.

When I told A that I'd rewritten the scene, the response I got completely overwhelmed me. A was extremely moved and grateful that I listened to the feedback I received and implemented it. And that made me sad. The person I am asking to help me should not be astounded that I accepted the advice given. No one should feel the need to thank me for not disregarding an opinion I asked for in the first place. I started to wonder how many people request sensitivity reads and then ignore what they're told or respond negatively. From what I can tell, it's too many. Far too many. We need to do better, cishet white people.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with another friend who no longer does sensitivity reads because the response she received on her first one was so negative. I'm not going to share her experience, but when she elaborated, I couldn't believe anyone would be so rude to someone who was doing them a favor (or providing a paid service, which many sensitivity readers do). Personally, I can't imagine paying for advice and then tossing it out the window. Yes, it's your manuscript, and you can make it wrong if you want to (you shouldn't, but if that's your prerogative, just don't expect me to read your book). But don't be a dick about rejecting the very advice you sought in the first place. We need to do better.

Don't:
  • Email back immediately when you disagree with feedback.
  • Invalidate the other person's experience by saying they're "wrong" or they don't know what they're talking about.
  • Insist that there isn't anything problematic in your work because no one else pointed it out. 
  • Devalue their time by disregarding things out of hand.
  • Pick only the feedback that affirms what you wanted to do, anyway, and only implement that.
Do:
  • Think about things. Mull it over.
  • Get a second opinion. If it differs, get a third. Try to at least reach a point where you understand the reason you got the feedback, even if you still disagree with it.
  • Be polite and respectful.
  • Say "thank you." Even if you're not going to make the changes, this person gave you their time and energy and that has value. 

Our books need to reflect the world around us, and when we get that world wrong, it's up to us to fix it. Sensitivity readers are not your mom or your best friend. They're not here to tell you what you did right. Their job is to point out issues. We need to understand that if we want to become better writers who write diverse characters. And we should want to be better writers who write books with diverse characters. There's always room for improvement. We need to do better.

1 comment:

  1. I was in the planning stages of a story when I sat down with someone and had a conversation that turned out much like your notes from A did. I thought I had my bases covered, I'd done a mountain of research and yet, still didn't have a clear picture of just how hard and complicated body dysmorphia can be. One two-hour conversation changed the entire arc of a story I'd been planning for months. I thanked her, went home and pouted, then went back to the drawing board to fix what I had gotten so terribly wrong. Respect the people who help and critique, they make our stories better.

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