Diversity & Working with a Sensitivity Reader

We live in a diverse world.  If you’re writing romance novels that take place in modern times, the odds are good that your entire cast of characters aren’t going to be carbon copies of one another when it comes to ethnicity and socio-economic background. Which means as a writer you are going to be writing about characters whose backgrounds differ from your own.  That’s awesome because it can make your stories richer and more authentic, but it also presents a challenge because you need to write those diverse characters in a way that is culturally sensitive and accurate.

I don’t think of myself as writing diverse romance, so much as romance with diverse characters, if that makes sense.  I’ve been writing about diverse casts since my first release (lo, these many years ago).  I come from a multi-cultural family so I grew up with the understanding that love often flourishes between people of different races and cultures.  So when I sat down to write romance, it just made sense that my characters would be varied.  My books are about love and love comes in all different colors and creeds.

But I’m also keenly aware that anytime I’m writing a character from a culture outside my own, I need to step carefully. There is a real risk of cultural appropriation and of misrepresenting the culture you’re trying to portray, and it’s never the things you research that get you in trouble, it’s the things you didn’t realize you needed to research.

That’s why, when I heard about sensitivity readers, I lit up.  I’ve been using diverse beta readers in an attempt to avoid screwing up for years, but this took it a step farther.  I could hire someone from a particular background who would be paid to look at my book specifically for cultural accuracy! 

This seemed particularly important because for the first time this year, I was writing about a Muslim heroine.  I’ve taken comparative religion courses, but I am not particularly religious.  (My family is mixed on that as well.)  When I wrote a Catholic hero, I had a Catholic friend read it to help me avoid screwing up, but with this new book, with everything as charged as it is right now politically in this country (and considering my hero was from a political family) it was even more important that I get not just the religious, but the social aspects of being Muslim American right. 

So I did some research and hired a lovely woman to help me make my heroine authentic.  And I’m extremely glad I did.

Some things to note about hiring a sensitivity reader:

  1. It is not a substitute for research. You still need to make the book the best it can be before it goes to your sensitivity reader.  (And it should be extremely polished by that point.)  Read through it specifically with an eye toward cultural aspects yourself before you send it – and if you have an specific concerns about specific areas, be sure to share them with your sensitivity reader.
  2. It is not a guarantee.  I will undoubtedly still step on some toes.  My sensitivity reader is not responsible for the final product.  I am.  And I have to own the mistakes I make.  She is just there to help me avoid them if she can.
  3. But it is a huge advantage.  My sensitivity reader was worth her weight in peace of mind.  I knew she would catch the egregious things – things I may not have even realized were egregious – but she also became an incredible resource for me.  Someone I could ask questions about which scenarios/changes would read most authentically.  She was erudite and thoughtful and I am incredibly grateful to have her feedback.

I can only hope I made her proud.  Dirty Little Secrets is about a nanny and a politician falling in love.  It isn’t trying to be a commentary on the Muslim American experience and it certainly isn’t meant to be a substitute for #OwnVoices romance novels – but I love Aiden and Samira, and the love story that grew out of a random subplot from Little White Lies.  And I hope readers love them too.

Do you like diverse romance novels or novels with diverse characters?  Do you write them?  Do you worry about cultural appropriation?  Would you ever hire a sensitivity reader?  Have you?

(There’s a great blog post on the topic of diversity and Own Voices here.  And if you’re looking for more diverse romance reading, be sure to check out the #OwnVoices hashtag and Romance Novels in Color. And please share your favorite diverse romances in the comments!  Personally, I’m a total fangirl for Jamie Wesley, Alisha Rai, and Brenda Jackson.)

Lizzie Shane is the 3-Time RITA-Nominated contemporary romance author of the Reality Romance and Bouquet Catchers series.  She also writes paranormal romance under the name Vivi Andrews.  For more about Lizzie and her books, please visit 


Widowed father of twin girls and descendant of a political dynasty, Aiden Raines has been going through the motions since he lost his wife, throwing himself into work and focusing on taking care of others. He might work a few too many hours, but he’s getting by and he isn’t interested in rocking the boat—or getting involved in another relationship. Until he finds himself growing keenly aware of the woman who’s been right under his nose for years…

Samira Esfahani moved to DC and took the job as a live-in nanny when she was running away from a failed marriage. After learning how wrong she’d been about her ex-husband, she wasn’t ready to trust her romantic instincts again, but if she were to decide she wanted a man, Aiden Raines would be the prototype for the perfect one. Unfortunately, he’s also her boss, and off limits in more ways than one… until one kiss changes everything.

As much as Samira wants to be with him, she’s leery of trusting her heart—especially if being with Aiden would thrust her into the political spotlight, or worse, leave her hiding in the shadows as his DIRTY LITTLE SECRET.

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23 responses to “Diversity & Working with a Sensitivity Reader”

  1. Darynda Jones says:

    Fantastic post, Vivi!!!

    I adore romance with diverse characters. I have a lot of diversity in my books as well and would love to employ a sensitivity reader. There are no guarantees, but a reader like that would certainly be a step in the right direction.

    Oh, and I love the writers you’ve mentioned as well as Beverly Jenkins and Sonali Dev. Le sigh…

    • Oooh, Sonali Dev! Be still my heart. 🙂

      I *loved* working with a sensitivity reader and highly recommend – like you said, no guarantees, but I just feel like I am that much closer to getting it right with her in my corner.

  2. Congrats on the new release, sister! Great blog too.

    The only diverse characters I’ve written so far are from Russia. While I researched customs, religions, foods, clothing, etc. I still received a negative review because I hadn’t used a correct word for something. One missed used word=one star review. I wish I had a sensitivity reader then. Kudos to you for finding one.

    I need to go buy Dirty Little Secrets. It sounds awesome.

    • Thank you, Autumn! That’s how it is, isn’t it? One little thing can throw a reader in the know right out of the story. It’s so tricky to get it right and I feel we have to make use of every resource we have.

  3. jbrayweber says:

    A sensitivity reader? I had no idea. What a great resource. Awesome blog, Vivi. Congrats on this latest release. Dirty Little Secrets sounds like it’s gonna be great!

  4. Kate Parker says:

    I had no idea there were sensitivity readers. That said, there aren’t any old enough to help when one writes historical. I could tell by some of the comments on Deadly Scandal about my gay characters that something was off. The treatment of gays in the 1930s, firing and imprisonment if caught, is different from today (we hope). I’m not sure if the negative comments were for presenting this as their possible fate or for how I portrayed them.

    Congrats on your newest release and an interesting blog.

  5. Tracy Brody says:

    Read an article about sensitivity readers a while back – the pros and cons. As I write about military characters, but have never served myself, I do a lot of research and use a member of the military to read and give me feedback.

    I also have diverse characters on my Spec Ops team and admit to being a bit terrified of getting things wrong when I get to their stories so I have thought of using diversity readers but haven’t decided yet.

    • I would be curious to hear some of the cons associated with using them. I love getting that additional perspective, but you do have to trust the person you’re working with – and have a good contract with them. 🙂

  6. Elizabeth Langston says:

    In my next book, I have a biracial teen (half Chinese/half white) and a teen on the autism spectrum. I found 2 sensitivity readers. I got their feedback this weekend–so this post is timely for me!

    The Chinese reader didn’t find anything wrong or implausible–but she did point out a couple of things that might get pushback. We’ve discussed how to frame them better.

    The ASD reader thought the character on the spectrum felt “spot-on” — but she did have a strong negative reaction to one word that I had used. So that’s easy; the word is gone and a better word will go in its place.

    As you mentioned, it can really give an author confidence and peace of mind to know that we’re respectfully creating characters from a culture we admire but can’t experience firsthand. And it’s good to be prepared in advance for where there could be issues.

    Lizzie, did you add anything to your acknowledgments or author notes to make it clear that you had done your research *and* used a sensitivity reader?

    • Yes! The little things can make such a big difference!

      I didn’t mention anything specific referring to a sensitivity reader in the acknowledgements – but then I usually don’t have an acknowledgements section in my books. Perhaps that is something to add in future editions.

  7. sarah andre says:

    Thanks for this, Vivi- I also am about to embark on a Muslim heroine (named Zamira!) who played a bit part in the RS I released yesterday. I would be very interested in getting in touch with your sensitive reader.

  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    Fabulous post, Vivi!! Using a sensitivity reader is a great idea, and having a resource for finding someone already willing to take on the task is so valuable!

    Although I write historicals, I still think it’s useful to have modern sensitivity readers take a look. The lives and cultural norms of people from that cultural group today may be very different from what the lives and cultural norms of their forebears were like 200 years ago, but stupid racist stereotypes are often remarkably similar. I’d want someone to let me know if my dumb Anglo filters are distorting characters in ways that would be hurtful and offensive to a reader in 2017.

  9. Interesting topic, Vivi. I first heard about sensitivity readers from author pals in the YA community, which makes sense, as my teen readers are some of my toughest critics when it comes to truth and authenticity.

    In my current WIP, I’m writing a 78-year-old dementia patient, and I had a cousin who was the executive administrator of an assisted living facility read this character’s scenes along with a friend who’s currently dealing with a parent suffering from dementia. Both had some great catches, and I am grateful.

    Looking forward to reading DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS!

    • Interesting you should mention this because Dirty Little Secrets has a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s. Since I lost my grandfather to the disease and lived with him when he was declining, it was a very personal part of the book for me, but how fortunate for you to have those resources to provide that extra bit of verisimilitude. We’re so lucky to be able to get the benefit of another perspective.

  10. Liz talley says:

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about checking one out for my newest book. I have several delicate topics. Where did you find yours? And a round about cost?

    Thanks, Lizzie!


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