#288 – Writing Diversely with Renee Harleston

Our guest this week is Renee Harleston, founder of Writing Diversely, which offers sensitivity reading services that provide authors, writers, and content creators the tools and support they need to tell diverse and inclusive stories. Find more information about our podcast, including links to our guests’ books here.

Our guest this week is Renee Harleston, founder of Writing Diversely, which offers sensitivity reading services that provide authors, writers, and content creators the tools and support they need to tell diverse and inclusive stories.

  • Renee explains how she got her start as a sensitivity reader, and how the team of readers at Writing Diversely has now expanded to encompass 26 readers representing a wide variety of lived experiences.
  • She offers us insight into who might benefit from using a sensitivity reader, and why it’s so important when writing about characters with marginalized identities.
  • Renee also talks about some of the most common missteps that writers make when writing outside of their lived experience, and talks about some of the resources available for authors to learn more. She also discusses how to receive feedback and offers tips for working with a sensitivity reader.

Renee Harleston lives in Brooklyn by way of Florida and Virginia. She received her M.A. in Cultural Anthropology at Hunter College. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found eating and critiquing time travel movie plots. She is passionate about history, candy, and stories about imperfect women. In middle school, she won 3rd place in a poetry contest at the county fair.

Useful Links

Writing Diversely Website

Writing Diversely on Twitter

The 1619 Project

Episode Transcript

Transcription provided by Speechpad

Rachel: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts, I’m Rachel, promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.

Joni: And I’m Joni, author relations manager at Kobo Writing Life.

Rachel: And today’s episode of the podcast we speak to Renee Harleston. Renee is the founder of Writing Diversity, which is dedicated to helping writers create diverse and inclusive stories through their range of services, including editing, writing, consulting, and sensitivity readers.

Joni: We met Renee when she came to Kobo to do a training with our team and the Kobo originals team to just explain how a sensitivity reader can help shape a book’s narrative and really make it better. And it was such a valuable training that we asked her if she would come on the podcast and talk to our audience about it because we thought that authors could really, really benefit from hearing what she has to say. So it was a great conversation.

Rachel: It really was, we had a great time talking to Renee and we spoke about a huge range of topics from the granular: “what is a sensitivity reader? Who can use a sensitivity reader?”, to more big-picture questions like the evolution of language, and what we consider proper language now can change in the future, and what implication that has. Yeah, it was a great conversation, and we really hope you enjoy it.

Joni: Okay, we are here today with Renee Harleston, thank you so much for joining us today.

Renee: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

Rachel: Can you start by telling our listeners what it is that you do and what we’re going to be talking about?

Renee: Sure. So I am a sensitivity reader. And let me back up a little bit. I am the founder of Writing Diversely, which is a sensitivity reading and editing services company. our job, our mission is really to help authors and writers kind of create the best diverse, and inclusive characters, and stories that they can. So with that, what I do is sensitivity reading with my team, and what we do is we use our lived experience, education, and professional experience, to advise and correct authors on any bias racism, or ignorance in fiction or nonfiction texts.

Rachel: All right, so just to kind of back it up a little bit. Could you explain to our listeners what a sensitivity reader does, and who might benefit from having one?

Renee: Definitely. So again, like I said, sensitivity readers, we use our experience, both sort of our lived experiences through our identities, and our educational background, and other experiences we’ve gained throughout our life to really kind of help, you know, hone an author’s work, especially if that work includes a character with marginalized identities. So we wanna make sure that the character reads as authentic as possible, free of cliches and stereotypes, but still sort of keeping in the context and spirit of the story. But we’re also really helpful for nonfiction texts, too, because you really don’t know what you don’t know. You know, for nonfiction texts, we really give more feedback towards the realm of inclusive language and point out ways a writer may not be using, sort of, up to date contemporary terms for different folks with different identities, or where they might be sort of unintentionally leaving a community out of a conversation that they should be in.

Joni: How did you get started in this work?

Renee: So I got started maybe about five years ago, myself, I was always sort of an avid reader, but I never really thought about making books and reading a part of like my everyday life, you know, professionally. But after I got my master’s in cultural anthropology, it really started to help me look at how different cultures and different people were being portrayed in the media. And there were things that I kind of kept seeing over and over again, and I have a really great friend from college who is a literary agent. And we always talk books, right? So she was just like, we were talking books, and we were talking about a character that just was not, in my opinion, written very well for their identity. And she goes, “You know, what? You would make a great sensitivity reader.” And I said, “I don’t know what that is.”

So she explained it to me, and I said, “You know what? You’re right. I think I would be really good at this. And so she pointed me towards the direction of a website that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s called Writing in the Margins. And that was sort of like, the OG list of sensitivity readers. It was literally just like, a spreadsheet with everybody’s contact information, like, under the sun that people just sort of reached out to you. And that was like, four years ago, that list doesn’t exist anymore. But I started there. I started with people just sort of reaching out to me and kind of growing my reputation from there and then created a blog about three years later, and added a team of readers after that.

Rachel: And is that kind of how Writing Diversely came about? Was it from this blog?

Renee: Yeah, actually. So the blog started because as I was doing my reading, I just kind of kept noticing, like, the same or similar errors over and over again. And I was like, “This is not a fluke or a coincidence,” right? This is something that, you know, people just don’t understand that they’re not maybe getting it right in their writing. So I started the blog really just picking out topics because I kept…I was like, “People need to read about this because they’re, you know, somewhat simple fixes,” right? So that’s how I started the blog back in October of 2017.

Joni: And do you have any examples of some of the most common mistakes that you do see again and again from writers?

Renee: Yeah, this is kind of hard, because I think with every type of identity that we work with, there are as many mistakes as there are identities, I think. But if I were, sort of, to think of it like a bucket or type of one, I think we see a lot of, sort of, one-dimensional or stereotypical portrayals of marginalized characters, right? We see very commonly those, like, good stereotypes that people think are neutral, or might be positive or not a bad thing, like, “Oh, you know, black people are good at sports,” right? Being good at sports is not a bad thing. But when you see something like that, sort of, over and over, you know, kind of creating, you know, at worst, you know, a perpetuated portrayal of people, right? So we see that very commonly in, sort of, all of the identities that we read.

Rachel: And why should an author who has written a character as part of a marginalized community find a sensitivity reader versus just asking an acquaintance who happens to be a part of that community?

Renee: That’s a great question. And the answer is basically, like, this is hard work, right? I mean, not to mention the time and effort it takes to, sort of, try to read a book, synthesize someone’s work, and really provide kind of nuanced feedback on topics, right, which all editors do in their own way. It’s also a lot of, sort of, difficult emotional labor as well, right? There have been times where I’ve had to pause a book because the portrayals of the characters were just, like, emotionally upsetting because it was just not written very well, right. So the emotional labor can be sometimes really outstanding, and people deserve to be paid for the work that they do, right.

And I understand that, you know, a lot of writers are up and coming and they’re just really trying and going through their own struggles, you know, financially. So not everyone can afford a professional reader. But if you are gonna use a friend, I think it’s fair for you to talk to that friend and offer some sort of compensation, right? Just say, “What can I help you with?” or, “What can I do?” And let them tell you what they think they deserve for that work.

Joni: And even if you don’t have the money for this, I know that your website has a lot of free resources, right, that people can access, I saw that you actually have a ton of really great resources on there. So check that out before you ask your friends.

Renee: Absolutely, right? Like, I didn’t invent sort of, you know, writing about marginalized characters, right? There’s a lot of knowledge out there on the website, I have a, you know, free resources guide you can download, and there are a lot of other places to just, sort of, read about different identities and how to write them.

Joni: And just in general, what should writers be mindful of if they want to tell a story that involves characters or anything outside of their own lived experience? Like, what is important to keep in front of mind when you’re writing?

Renee: I guess it would say, like, you can never go wrong with a well considered multi-dimensional character with voice and agency, right? So if you start there, that’s your goal, even if it’s a side character, or a sidekick, right, you know, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have their own voice or agency in the story, or have their own goals, or thoughts, or be a really interesting character, right? It may not be perfect, but I think just starting with that in mind is, you know, really making you well on your way to writing a good character. And that’s really, you know, the most important thing.

Rachel: Are there any times when writers should not attempt to write outside their lived experience?

Renee: Mm-hmm. You know, I think in our line of work, we get this question a lot. And I think everyone will have a different answer to this. But to me, I think it 100% depends on the writer. I don’t really believe in absolutes when it comes to writing because there’s just so many variables. But to me, I think if a writer is afraid or uncomfortable getting into the nitty-gritty of, you know, some of the reasons why a character’s identity might be marginalized or has historical trauma…if they’re not ready to get into that conversation, then they’re not ready to write the book or the character, right?

So for example, if you are not ready to get into colonialism and genocide, but you’re writing a native character, then you’re not ready to write that native character, right? Or if you’re not ready to talk about genocide and stereotypes, then you’re not ready to write a Jewish character, and so on and so forth, right? So, but that doesn’t mean that, you know, you have to write about those particular things if you’re writing that character itself if the story doesn’t call for it. But those things do affect, you know, a person’s identity, and therefore would affect that character’s identity, right, how they move about in the world. So it’s really important to be ready to like mentally address those things in order to write the character.

Joni: So this is a bit of a long-winded question, but it came out of a conversation we were having at work about books that we were reading. And something that we were talking about was sometimes a writer will want to write about diverse characters, but they’re so afraid almost of wading into stereotypes that they will say, “Okay, this character here is in a wheelchair,” and they’ll tell us that in the narrative, but then they won’t actually show what it’s like for that character to navigate the world in a wheelchair, or whatever other identity they have. Have you ever come across that where people are like, “I don’t want to use any stereotypes. I’m just gonna announce this, and then move on and just write my character?”

Renee: Absolutely, yes, we actually see that often. And I think, you know, that’s that person trying to be, like, very well meaning or not trying to make, you know, a big deal out of something that they think isn’t really, you know, a big deal, whatever that means. But, you know, in my experience, I write a lot about race as a Black woman. So I’m gonna use that as an example. You know, sometimes we see people who are so conscious of talking about race that they actually, like, never even mention the characters race at all, they just have like a vague description of a character that’s like kind of brown. And then they kind of leave it up to the reader to, sort of, guess what they’re even talking about, right? And I’ve read that, and I’ll be like, “Wait, what am I reading? Who am I reading?”

So I say all that to say that what makes a person marginalized is a strong part of that person’s identity. And it’s a strong part of that person’s personality, and maybe how they interact with the world and the people around them. So it’s important to really bring up those things, you know, not only because it’s a part of their identity, but given the example of a wheelchair, you know, you have to explain how they’re physically moving about the world, right? Other characters might be…you know, able-bodied characters might be doing something in their wheelchair…the person in a wheelchair is right next to them. And you’re like, “Wait, what does the scene look like? What’s actually happening in the scene?”

It also helps create clarity, you know, and one thing I recommend for authors who are kind of struggling with this is a really simple tool, it’s called an identity chart. And I suggest that you make this for every character, right? So what you do is you put the character’s name in the center, and then you just create branches and offshoots from there about things that sort of make up their identity, like their age or where they’re from, you know, are they the oldest child, the youngest? Are they a parent? And things that are just important to who they are. And what’s interesting is, it’s really uncommon for people with a majority identity like white cisgender, and able-bodied people, they often do not put their race or their gender identity, right, or they’re able bodiness, right? But people who do have marginalized identities almost always put their marginalization in their identity chart, right? They’ll write, you know, that they’re Black, right, or write that they’re in a wheelchair. So you know, just think about for that character, not for you, for your character, what makes them them. And that’ll be helpful.

Rachel: I think that’s really interesting because I’m actually reading a book right now and it’s a memoir, and the author is a white Jewish woman. And she points out the race of everybody that she talks about, and she has a footnote where she says, “The reason I’m doing this is because so many people default to white. And so why would I point out that I’m talking to a Black man if I’m not pointing out that I’m talking to a white man as well?” So I think that’s a really interesting point to make sure that you’re not defaulting to the “norm” because there isn’t one. If that makes sense.

Renee: Yeah, no, absolutely. And that’s actually one of the topics, you know, in my feedback that I give people all the time because we see it all the time. I think people are not very used to describing the races. They’re not used to describing the white race right? You know, you see this all the time, like the example you just pointed out where, you know, everyone has race except for white people somehow, right? And I’m going to botch this and I’m gonna try not to, but there is a really good Toni Morrison quote, she said in a speech in 1992, “In this country, American means white, and everyone else is hyphenated,” right?

So you have this…you hear it all the time when people are like Americans, Americans do this, Americans do that, Americans have this, American celebrate Christmas, and you’re like, “Wait, who exactly are you talking about when you’re talking about Americans,” right? And the same thing, they’re implying white people. And I think a lot of time, whiteness is implied and everyone else is explicit, right? What does it mean to make whiteness explicit as well, right? So you are definitely right. I think that author is really spot on when she’s describing white people as well as, you know, everyone else in the story equally.

Rachel: You mentioned that the whole, like, defaulting to white was some of the feedback that you usually give. Do you have any advice for authors who are using a sensitivity reader on receiving feedback?

Renee: Yes. You know, in some ways…it’s funny, in some ways, sensitivity reading feedback, you know, should be received, like any other writing feedback. And in some ways, it’s very different, right? And one thing that I say all the time is sometimes it feels a little bit more personal because instead of someone saying, you know, “You need a comma here, you need, you know, a period here, or you need to move this sentence to another part of the page,” no one’s talking about who you are as a person, right? But if someone says, “I think this sentence is offensive,” right, “I think there is some racial bias in this sentence, people are like, “Oh, my gosh, am I a racially biased person? I didn’t know that.” And now they’re sort of thinking about their whole lives, right, and who they are as people, right?

So definitely, just take a deep breath when you’re getting your feedback, and know that it is not personal. No matter what it says on the page, you are not a bad person, right? This is a tool for you to use to make your writing the best that it can be, right? And all of the things that we write and all of the things that we experience and we learned, just going back to my anthropology background, this is all learned, right? The reason why you’re writing a character this way, the reason why you’re perhaps not using the correct language is, it’s not something like innately in you. It’s something that you’ve picked up on throughout the years, which means if it’s learned, it can be unlearned, right? That’s why we give the feedback, “Hey, this is not quite correct, fix it, fix it here, fix it throughout the text, and just move on.”

Joni: You touched on this a little bit earlier, when we talked about resources on your website. But I wanted to ask, are there any maybe, I don’t know, circumstances in which maybe you don’t need a sensitivity reader? Maybe the piece of work that you’re working on is very, very short, perhaps, I’m not sure, or you can maybe actually do the work yourself to find out how to navigate it. Are there resources where people can educate themselves on that, and how much…I don’t know how to explain this, but how big a piece of work is worth, kind of, getting somebody else involved and saying, “Okay, I need you to have a look at this?”

Renee: Hmm, I think that’s hard. Because like, again, like, every story is so different. And I don’t think length is a good barometer for if you need a sensitivity reader or not. I think topic is actually a better indicator of when you might need help. I’ve read books, or articles or, you know, whatever it is that are specifically about race, or it’s specifically about disabilities, or it’s specifically about sexuality, right? Even if it’s a paragraph, you should have a sensitivity reader for that because it’s specifically about a marginalized identity, and getting a second set of eyes can’t hurt, right. But if you are writing something and, you know, it’s an adventure story, and it’s set in a, you know, fantasy world, and you don’t think it has anything to do with anything culturally or that we can compare it to right, you might say, “Oh, I’m not so sure I need a sensitivity reader for this. I made up races, I made up body types. I made up all these things, and they don’t exist in the real world.”

And fine, you can argue that. My counterpoint is there’s nothing new under the sun and we all have reference points. So you are probably referencing something that is very, very real. But I think a good way to, sort of, self-educate is to read content written by folks who self-identify in the most similar community that you can, right? And follow those folks on social media, see also what they’re reading, right? Like, don’t just read their stuff, read the stuff that they’re reading, right? See who they’re talking to, who they’re following, who they admire, or the resources that they’re using. And I think that’s a really good way to self-educate, right? Like, find those people that really represent what you’re trying to represent or symbolize, and just do your research and scour everything they have.

Rachel: I’m gonna switch topics a little bit here. The YA community relatively recently dropped using the term “own voices” to describe people or writers writing about their lived experiences because, in some cases, it was forcing, especially like queer and trans authors out before they were ready to be publicly out. And I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on this? Or kind of like, do you think it’s important to highlight when an author is writing about their own experience versus writing about somebody else’s lived experience?

Renee: Yeah, I think this is a really great question and a really good example about how you know things change in publishing, they can change fairly quickly. Like, the phrase “own voices” is not a very old one, you know what I mean? But I would just say, like, I see a big difference in books that are written by Black authors about Black people compared to those that are still about Black people but are not written by Black people, right. So I think it’s important, especially when you’re doing research on different topics, to really find people who self-identify that way. Also, in an industry where marginalized people don’t get the same marketing or sales, it’s really important to support authors who may be, sort of, struggling for mainstream support.

So I like to know, you know, when someone…when it’s a sort of “own voices” author so I can support them. But that being said, it’s really the author’s right to choose what they wanna write about, and how they wanna identify, and when. So I think the bigger issue is not necessarily like, is it okay to, like, read those things? But like, how do we stop, you know, the phrase “own voices” from being used as like a vague marketing buzzword, right,? It really limits marginalized people from, sort of, only writing, like, in one particular way in, like, their lane. And you know, it would be more advantageous, more helpful to get the publishing industry to really just stop thinking in silos, stop putting people in silos, and truly supporting all of its authors in their marketing, publishing, what they want to write.

Joni: Yeah, I think that’s a great point because it is trying to strike the balance. We don’t want to put people in a separate bucket, but we also want readers to be able to easily find like, “Hey, I specifically want to read a Black experience written by a Black author,” like, and that’s a fair enough point as well. But yeah, it’s constantly changing, like you said.

Renee: Yeah, it’s changing. And it’s tricky in an industry that’s a mixture of between art and business, right? Like, you have artists creating, you know, really creative minds writing things just from their head, and then you also have an industry, right? So I’m not so sure those two things will ever be completely in line with each other. But I also think it’s our, kind of, responsibility as readers and people who wanna support the writers to really, kind of, push the industry in the direction we think they should be going.

Joni: And I wanted to ask also, what kind of, I guess, readers do you have in your group? So when you talked a little bit about race and disability and, I guess, that kind of thing, how far do you go with sensitivity readers? Do you recommend that…if people are writing about mental illness that they haven’t experienced, or I mean, there’s a lot of writing about trauma, which can also be really, really difficult to navigate well. Like, how far can you go? Like, what kind of readers do you have on your team?

Renee: Well, I have a team of about 26, right now, readers.

Joni: Oh, wow.

Renee: I know. It’s wow because sometimes I look at the list and I was like, “Well, that got out of hand.” But it really didn’t, right, because, you know, it’s impossible, I think, to find someone sometimes for every single possible identity out there for whatever a person can come up with for a character, right? Like, we’ve seen things where they’ve mashed a lot of identities together in one person and, you know, try to find a living person who has that exact same match and that’s not always possible. But that’s, I think, also why I like to have so many readers available because, you know, there are ways to sort of find someone who might be the best fit for you even if it’s not a perfect fit.

So, you know, definitely we have readers who talk about race, who are on different places on the gender identity spectrum and sexuality. And we also have readers who have various mental illnesses, and also physical disabilities, and mental disabilities, folks from, you know, different countries, as well. And also different experiences, you have readers who were at one time homeless and housing insecure, right? We also have readers who identify as being, like, fat or overweight, right? So just thinking about, you know, different types of bodies and experiences in the world. But yeah, I just think that, you know, it’s really helpful to sort of consider, you know, even though a reader might not fit perfectly with your character, think about who out there, you know, could be the closest fit for you and see if that can work.

Joni: Yeah, that’s great to know. So essentially, anyone that’s writing just about any experience, it does sound like there might be someone on your team that can help.

Renee: Yeah, and sometimes, to be honest, like, I have the list, if you’re not sure, if you don’t see it, you know, sometimes I reach out to my readers and say, “Hey, is there anyone who has this particular experience?” And then I hear back and I didn’t even know. For example, I had a medical journal reach out to me because they had a chemistry article that they wanted read. And they were like, “Do you know anyone who has any experience with chemistry?” And I said, “Wait, I’m not sure.” And I reached out, and one of my readers had a minor in chemistry. And I was like, “I did not know that.” So it doesn’t hurt to ask, right? And we’re very upfront, you know, if we happen to not have someone who fits, you know, we’re not gonna, you know, force someone on you. We’ll say, you know, “We have this available, it’s not a perfect fit. I think they can help in X, Y, and Z ways.” Or we can say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have anyone at the time who meets your needs, you know, we hope you can reach out to some other services, perhaps, and find someone.”

Joni: So when someone reaches out to you, do they reach out to someone kind of central, I don’t know if they reach out to you directly, or do they go down the list and directly approach a reader with their project?

Renee: So that’s a great question. So since we have so many folks, and we also don’t want to, you know, put our readers’ personal contact information out there on the internet. So we have a basic form where you say, “This is…” You tell us a little bit about your book or your project. And then you can also, you know, personally select a reader you had in mind. Or you can say, “Oh, I’m not quite sure who I need, why don’t you give me some advice.” And then from there, then usually, I will reach out and just kind of confirm all the details and make sure we have all of the questions asked and answered, and then kind of put you in touch with your reader once you’re ready for that.

Joni: Okay, so that makes it really simple for anyone that’s reaching out.

Renee: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

Rachel: And just kind of following up on the, like, you might not have somebody who’s a perfect fit, do you ever think that it’s worth an author reaching out to two different sensitivity readers on two very different topics?

Renee: Yes, again, because I think, in some cases, it’s almost impossible to find one person that meets, you know, every qualification for fictional people that you’ve absolutely made up. So I think there are cases, you know, that one of our readers might qualify in one area and a different reader qualifies in another area. So we’ll say, “Hey, I actually have two readers who I think in combination would be a great fit for you.” And sometimes we even recommend to readers, especially if folks are kind of writing, you know, more nonfiction texts that are sort of generalized because we wanna as many, sort of, overlapping experiences as possible taking a look at the text to make sure nothing’s missed. So we do sometimes recommend more than one reader to make sure that we’re covering different aspects of the text that you want us to.

Joni: So we touched on a little bit about “own voices” and how recently that phrase both came up and then, sort of, fell out of favor. And that does happen with language a lot and quickly. So while it’s the responsibility of the writer to keep up with what’s going on now, what if they’ve written something that’s maybe 5, 10 years old and language has changed? And with digital now, it’s really easy to go back and make those fixes. Do you think that writers should be doing that and going back and constantly re-editing work, or do you find that writers do that?

Renee: You know, I don’t find that any people do that. I think, you know, we’ve had instances where like, you know, a new edition of a text and was planning to come out anyway. So they reach out and say, “Hey, we’ve got a new edition coming out of a text, we’d love someone to look at it,” right? So that does happen, you know, and another thing that I’ve seen people do, if they feel like they would rather not, sort of, go back and edit, if a new edition comes out, they actually put, sort of, a content…I wouldn’t call it a warning, but I guess, you know, just something that lets the reader know, you know, “This is a new edition of the book. When I wrote it X years ago, you know, this was the language that was, you know, being used at the time. And now that is not the case,” right? So…

Joni: I see that in books. Yeah.

Renee: Right. But I think what’s necessary for that is to be specific, right? To me, it’s a bit of a pet peeve where someone’s like, “Oh, the language is just old, and we’re gonna kind of still publish it anyway.” I think if you’re gonna make that statement, I think you have to specifically say what is wrong, and say that you know that it’s wrong, and you’re keeping it for X reason, right? So be very specific on why you decided to keep a language that you know is not in good usage anymore. And, you know, I use, for example, the N word, right, so it might be in a lot of text, for whatever reason, and you know, it’s debatable whether people should still use it or not in…trust me, it’s very debatable. But, you know, write that in your disclaimer, “I use the N word in this text, and I use it because of this reason, and I’m keeping it in because of this reason,” right? I think it’s important to be, sort of, upfront, and honest, and specific.

Rachel: Just kind of talking about the evolution of language, do you think that it’s important that there is a history of the evolution of language so people don’t necessarily go back and edit out anything problematic? Or do you think it’s more important to make everything more up to date, and more up to current standards?

Renee: That’s a great question. And I don’t know if I have an answer to that, to be honest, because I can see, in a weird way, like both sides, right? I am a big history nerd, like, I would say, like 90% of what I read is like historical fiction because I love it so much. So there is something to be said about keeping these words or portrayals from earlier editions, right? I’m not talking about if you’re writing right now in a contemporary context, and not editing those out. But I will say, you know, that’s a good reason to do, what I mentioned earlier, is put that little note at the front of the book and say, “I’m keeping it in because I believe in, you know, the history of language.” And have that be where you plant your flag. But I also say that, you know, we have dictionaries, we have museums, we have…so it’s not like we’re gonna miss out on it, right. So if you feel that it’s important to use contemporary wording, and to be as up to date as possible with your wording, you don’t have to use any language that you don’t want to use as a writer, you don’t have to.

Joni: Awesome. If anyone who’s listening is thinking, “Ooh, I could do this, I’d be really great at this,” how do you become a sensitivity reader?

Renee: Great question. So as far as I know, as of right now, there is no course, or class or…you know, definitely not in, you know, an accredited academic setting for how to be a sensitivity reader. I know there are a lot of resources out there, there’s a lot of places to go, including my website and blog to really kind of think about what sensitivity reading is and the things you should kind of pay attention to and that work. So, you know, it’s important, I think, to just really start, sort of, offering your services online. If you think, “Oh, I’m really good at this,” you know, maybe that first question you asked earlier is, you know, “Should I do something for my friends?” And like, if you’re trying to get your foot in the door and you just want to experience, yes, work with authors you know, work with friends, still get paid, but maybe you take a lesser fee, right? Because you’re like, “I’m just beginning, maybe I won’t charge as much because I really just wanna understand what I’m doing,” right? And do that.

And if you know you’re good, you have some experience, and you just don’t know really how to get started, definitely start putting yourself out there online, offering your services. I see a lot of folks promoting themselves on Twitter and on their blog, and really start building yourself a reputation, and the authors will come. I used to have on my sights on a page to, sort of, cultivate a list of readers. Like I said earlier, I have 26 right now, and because I have so many I kind of had to pause on accepting some more because the requests are now over 200 to join the list. So I just need some time to sort of go through some of those. And obviously, we don’t want, you know, too many of the same type of reader available, right? We have to be able to…on one particular service, right, like mine. There’s never too many sensitivity readers, in general. So yeah, I just say, start getting your experience with your friends, try to get paid as much as you can, and then start putting yourself out there online.

Joni: I wanted to ask at what point, at what stage in the editorial process, because you work a lot with fiction, you said, would you take your book to a sensitivity reader? Would you want it to go after it’s been through a full round of edits? Or do you want to get that out of the way in the, sort of, developmental stage and then fine tune it with your editor later?

Renee: Mm-hmm. We’ve seen it in pretty much every single stage possible. And to be honest, I believe that some readers have their personal preferences of where they like to, like, kind of see a book. So we’ve seen it as early as, sort of, the planning and outline phase, right? And that’s someone saying, “I’ve got this idea, I’m thinking of this character, what should I know? What should I read? What should I pay attention to? What questions should I be asking?” And that’s as good a place as any to, sort of, start that conversation. But I think the sweet spot for me is really, kind of right around that developmental editing phase, where you’ve kind of got the first draft and maybe revision or so out there, but you’re still really thinking of, you know, the nuts and bolts of the content and the formatting of things. And I think a sensitivity reader can really jump in there and really kind of help you fine-tune the characters a lot and maybe some of the plot before you get into more of the nitty-gritty of the editing.

Rachel: And, kind of, before we start to wrap things up, you mentioned you like to read historical fiction, do you find you have a lot of time to read outside of your sensitivity reading?

Renee: Oh, man, not as much as I would like, to be honest.

Rachel: Story of our lives.

Renee: I’m gonna out myself a little bit is that I am actually a “slow reader.” And I don’t mean, you know, that I have, you know, any particular disability, it’s just that I like to take my time with books, especially doing this work. So, you know, it takes me a while to get through something. So that does not leave me with a lot of time to read other things. My, you know, TBR list is mountains long. But I do like to take, like, breaks for myself. So if I find that, you know, I’m getting a bit of a waiting list for my reads, you know, we’ll stop it at a certain point, finish those, maybe read a handful of texts for myself, one, because I wanna keep loving to read. But I also wanna, you know, keep, sort of, in line with what’s current out there, what’s being published, what people are talking about, you know, so I’m gonna get a chance to really like dig into some work. So, yeah.

Joni: Is there, like, a certain genre that you read kind of as a palate cleanser to kind of turn off the sensitivity reader brain? Or are you even able to do that at this point?

Renee: So I would say, if I’m gonna really do, like, a true palate cleanse, I will watch something. I don’t have any reading palate cleansers. And even though when I’m watching things, I still pick out certain things. And I’m like, “Well, I wouldn’t have done it this way, but nobody asked me.” But I really…like, one of the things I think that’s like a true palate cleanser for me is any sort of competition reality show, right, like “The Great British Baking Show,” or “Bake Off,” I can’t remember what it’s called now, or like “Project Runway” or something. Like, I’ll just watch, like, amazing people create something. And then I’m like, “Oh, I don’t really have to, like, turn that part of my brain on.”

Joni: And are you reading anything right now that you’d like to recommend?

Renee: Ooh. I am actually reading “The 1619 Project” book, it was edited by Nicole Hannah-Jones with a list of wonderful authors, creators, both…I love it because it’s a combination of these, like, wonderful historical essays, but there’s also prose and poetry and photography, in it as well. So yeah, that’s my current read. And it’s great.

Joni: Wow, I hadn’t heard of this. It looks really interesting.

Renee: It started off as a magazine by “The New York Times,” and it’s really kind of positing, you know that America’s starting year was not 1776 for the American…like the Declaration of Independence, but rather the year 1619 were the first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States and therefore the beginning of the starting date of this country. And what does that mean to, sort of, think about the country in those terms? And how does it affect us now? So the essays are great because they just reach…you know, there’s different topics, so a lot of different entry points but all under, sort of, the same theme.

Joni: Amazing. And can you finish off by telling our listeners where they can find you online? Is it writingdiversely.com?

Renee: Yes, so that’s exactly right. So yes, I’m at writingdiversity.com and on Instagram @writingdiversely, and on Twitter as @writediversely because there was a character limit. So you can find us there.

Joni: Perfect. We’ll make sure that we share all of those links. And thank you so much for doing this. This was really, really great.

Renee: No problem. Thank you for having me. It’s so exciting to be able to talk about not only my work but the work of sensitivity reading in general and all the people who are really trying just to do this work together. I appreciate it.

Joni: Thank you.

Rachel: Thank you. Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in learning more about Renee’s work and about Writing Diversely, we will include links in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com and be sure you are following us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life. on Instagram.

Joni: This episode was produced by Joni Di Placido and Rachel Warden. Editing is by Kelly Rowbotham. And our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. Huge thanks today to Renee Harleston for being our guest.

Rachel: If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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