This is no. 106 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
From the moment I began writing my essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and my first novel, The Parted Earth, I knew I would need to hire authenticity editors. It wouldn’t be my first time—I’ve been hiring authenticity editors for years to aid in my work on everything from op-eds to articles to essays.
What are authenticity (or sensitivity) editors and what do they do? They are professional editors who scrutinize writers’ work for harmful or stereotypical depictions of characters, settings, and plots. They ensure that a narrative is accurate and inclusive at a structural, sentence, and word level to help a writer produce a dynamic, effective, and authentic story.
Authenticity editors will dissuade a writer from comparing a Black or brown character’s skin tone to the color of food. Or recommend fleshing out a disabled character if it appears their sole purpose is to enlighten or educate the protagonist. They will flag a writer’s use of the word tribe and suggest another that does not appropriate Indigenous culture. They will counsel against a white savior narrative.
On a more philosophical level, the field of authenticity editing asks writers to consider the fact that their ability to publish gives them power, and that this power has the potential to impugn members of marginalized communities. It challenges the notion championed by centuries of white male authors that writers have some inherent “right” to compose whatever they want regardless of the harm their writing might cause others.
As a result, some writers, particularly writers of privilege, feel threatened by the idea of authenticity editing. They compare it to censorship or cancel culture. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Authenticity editing reflects contemporary social, cultural, and political evolutions in language. An authenticity editor would suggest that the term “enslaved people” replace “slaves,” to implicate the active role of enslavers while also emphasizing the humanity of those who were enslaved. Recently, some publications’ editors have decided to capitalize the “b” in black to describe Black people. Authenticity editors have been advocating for this change for years. These types of edits make clear that characters in stories, whether in fiction or in nonfiction, deserve the same degree of dimension, respect, and precision as actual, living people.
Authenticity editors also possess a degree of expertise that beta readers—nonprofessional readers who provide feedback on completed manuscripts—usually lack. Some beta readers can point out problematic issues or themes in a manuscript that require more nuance and sensitivity, but a typical beta reader, even one who shares an identity with the characters, may not catch the issues an authenticity editor will spot. This is because an authenticity editor specializes in deeply examining how internalized biases shape language and story. So even if a writer is already working with multiple readers, they may still need a dedicated authenticity edit.
My essay collection, Southbound, tackles white supremacy, homophobia, state-sanctioned violence, and extremism, among other difficult issues. My authenticity editor ensured that my words accurately reflected the language belonging to the communities I discussed, and that my essays about violence did not devolve into tragedy porn. My novel, The Parted Earth, is told through multiple characters’ points of view, including those of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. My authenticity editors for the book (I hired two) helped to ensure that the depictions of these characters were fully realized and culturally accurate.
Let me challenge the notion, too, that an author only needs an authenticity editor if they are writing outside of their community. Just because an author shares an identity with the people or culture represented in their book, does not mean they won’t unintentionally use denigrating language, stereotypes, and tropes. In both Southbound and The Parted Earth, I write from the point of view of a mixed-race brown woman. My authenticity readers examined my lived experiences in the books as rigorously as those of others.
Unfortunately the publishing industry has miles to go before it values authenticity editing for the vital discipline it is. If the goal is to write and publish books that do no harm then an authenticity edit should be a part of the process.
Anjali Enjeti is an author, teacher, and organizer. Her first essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change (University of Georgia Press, 2021), and her first novel, The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 2021), were both published in the spring. The recipient of awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she has written for Oxford American, USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications. She cofounded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, and served on the Georgia AAPI Leadership Council for the Biden-Harris campaign. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.