When authors are writing outside of their experience, feedback from experts within the communities they’re writing about is crucial. Read on to learn more about this important stage of the editorial process.
What is an authenticity reader?
Authenticity readers are experienced beta readers who think critically about a piece of writing. They are often hired by authors who are writing outside of their direct experience. That said, authenticity readers’ expertise is not limited to their own lived experience—many readers also bring an academic background to your work, which means they are familiar with the literary canon and patterns of harmful representation, and thus know how to identify such patterns and issues in contemporary work.
Many have dedicated their careers to a specific area of expertise—for example, the history of colonization, or gender identity and cultural norms—and they can tell you how your work fits into that context. This expertise can be invaluable to authors and help guide them toward authentic representations.
What do authenticity readers do?
Essentially, authenticity readers are (often freelance) editors with a very targeted focus. They consider whether your work perpetuates stereotypes, they check for unconscious or internalized bias, and they identify inaccuracies in your work.
Authenticity readers can provide general feedback on an entire piece, or they can work with specific scenes or characters. They don’t, however, work on broader issues in your writing—such as pacing and narrative arc—in the way your in-house editor does.
It’s important to remember that communities are not monolithic, and one editor can’t be expected to recognize every inaccuracy or area of concern. Because of this, the feedback presented by an authenticity reader shouldn’t be considered “permission” to write outside of your experience.
A question to ask yourself: Are you looking for feedback to make your work stronger, or are you looking for a stamp of approval to avoid future criticism? The main function of an authenticity reader isn’t to act as a shield for your work, but to help you represent communities, characters, and stories accurately. Keep that in mind when seeking one.
Why might you need an authenticity reader?
As with any facet of your writing process, feedback from experienced readers can only make your work better. Regardless of our specific lived experience, we all have limitations and blind spots, and we’re all going to get things wrong at some point. Once you come to terms with that as a creator, it’s easier to roll up your sleeves and put in the work to fill your gaps in knowledge.
To that end, look at authenticity as a craft issue. Your goal is to develop well-rounded characters that feel authentic, whether you’re writing inside your experience or not.
When and how often should you solicit feedback from authenticity readers?
This depends on many factors—where you are in the editorial process, how many authenticity readers you plan to approach, etc. Readers are best sought while it’s still possible to make changes to your book. Give yourself time to do that. If you are interested in working with an authenticity reader, reach out to your in-house editor to discuss timing and the content to be reviewed.
Best practices when working with authenticity readers:
- Be open to feedback: Authenticity readers bring a considerable amount of emotional and intellectual labor to their critiques. Being open to feedback is a way to acknowledge that.
- Engage with the feedback; don’t just omit problematic sections: Just like when you work with your in-house editor, it’s important to push through any potential discomfort and address feedback directly. This is a fantastic opportunity for you to grow and learn as a writer.
- Respect their time with appropriate compensation: Most standard rates include only one round of feedback, so consider hiring multiple readers or contracting for multiple rounds with one reader.
- Use the databases and resources available to hire a professional: Look for authenticity readers who can bring both their lived experience and an academic perspective to your work.
How to find an authenticity reader and learn more:
- Writing in the Margins Sensitivity Reader Database: This is one of many resources where authors can learn more about best practices of working with authenticity readers, and also find a list of readers, including their qualifications, pricing, interests, and areas of expertise.
- School Library Journal Diversity and Cultural Literacy Syllabus: To learn more about your potential blind spots and the need for authenticity readers, take a look at School Library Journal’s self-led course on Diversity and Cultural Literacy.
When writing outside of your experience, think about whether your work adds to the larger conversation in a meaningful way. In some cases, your work might be the first time someone sees themselves in a book, and it’s undeniable that books can shape who we are as people. You owe it to readers to get it right. Authenticity readers play a key role in helping your work be as accurate as possible.
Joanna Cárdenas is Editor at Kokila, a new imprint of Penguin Young Readers dedicated to centering stories from the margins.