Sensitivity Editors: Censorship gone too far?

Hey guys,

So, I am guessing some (if not all) of you are wondering, what in heckers is a sensitivity editor? Why someone would hire one? And what they could do to your writing. I came across this recently in a local facebook group for writers, with a person asking where you could in fact source a sensitivity editor from and whether there were any in the group. This of course led to the questions above and after a bit more digging I am quite surprised about the concept.

What is a sensitivity editor?

Well, the most common form of sensitivity editor is a person who reads and makes notes on a manuscript specifically looking for sensitive topics, and/or prejudice/discrimination within the story.

This may in fact be helpful, such as those from diversity controlled backgrounds attempting to write outside of their own culture, or an author who has written from a cultural perspective they know little to nothing about. However, this is not the only use; they are also used to look at whether the wording and phrasing used within the manuscript are ‘loaded’, do they hold specific connotations to specific cultures/ subgroups of society?

This level of censorship can be seen in reprints of classics, including Huckleberry Fin where (most notoriously) the word nigger (please note: I do not condone the use of this language or other discriminatory or degrading labelling) has been completely removed. When considering both the era the storyline is based in and the era society was when the book itself was written, the word is contextually appropriate. However, due to sensitivity editing, current publications of the book completely remove it.

On a side note- by removing this word from culturally appropriate contexts within stories, are the editors trying to deny that the word was ever used and the harsh reality of the associations with the label brings, also never existed? Surely to move towards a society where these divisions in society doesn’t exist, also needs to acknowledge the reality of use of such language.

So, why would someone want to be put under such scrutiny?

Okay, the answer is simple, writers will always come under fire for the use of sensitive materials and topics in their writings; rape scenes are told they are too violent, abuse is seen to be inappropriate, and racial slurs are seen as unnecessary and told that they themselves must be racist/ homophobic/ sexist (etc.)  because a character in a story they wrote uses those characteristics. Writers are now afraid to include sensitive topics because of this backlash, being branded as a racist (etc.) author not only damages the sales of the ‘problem’ book, but also the chance of being published or even acknowledged after the claims are made.

It can be argued that some of the uses are not contextually appropriate, but neither are women in historical fiction complaining about their corsets being too tight or being allowed to wear trouser/pants. Yet, those are ignored.

Context is everything with sensitivity!

If, as part of your creative licence, can justify (to yourself because you shouldn’t have to too anyone else unless there is blaring aim and uncharacteristic problems) that the use of sensitive topics is necessary for your storyline; then I personally cannot understand why you would wish for someone to edit out the sensitive topics?

For example, in a short story I have been working on recently, the main character went through a long period of sexual and psychological abuse. This leads to a variety of flashbacks and nightmares, some would argue that this is a sensitive topic that should only be discussed in certain formats, however the abuse was significant in explaining the main character’s behaviour in key scenes, as well as her character development.

So, do you think an editor should be telling a writer, a creator, that their work shouldn’t contain certain topics, wording, phrasing, because a possible reader maybe offended? I personally, do not think this aids in the creation of novels of unique standing that has realistic characters and follows genuine storylines, as these characteristics are still very much a part of society.

Let me know what you think in the comments below, please don’t inform me that I should not say nigger, I understand the contextual and connotations associated and was using it as a key example.

Until next time my friends,

Helen x


2 thoughts on “Sensitivity Editors: Censorship gone too far?

    1. I totally agree, one thing I have noticed a lot recently is the fear of characterisation that may be offensive (such as a racist character in a novel) being taken out of context and used to deface or criticise the author. And I think that the sensitivity editor role may be inflating that reaction, that they look for specific wording or phrases rather than considering it in the context of the storyline.

      It makes me fear that we are going to result in strict rules for what an author can write about, to the point that it will result in the same story over and over again.

      Helen x


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