I’m always reviewing my writing for exclusionary words. In this post, I’ll be taking a discriminating look at a few paragraphs from my book with the intent of removing discriminatory language. Don’t worry – this wasn’t some prejudicial diatribe I needed to cut. I’d found a trite, gender-centric passage, and I decided to shake it up to turn a trope on its head. Painless right? And kinda fun, kid.
Language is both simple and powerful in its ability to bring people together, but it’s also very easy to exclude broad swathes of people with specific words. For instance, using “men” to describe soldiers or “wife” or “husband” instead of “spouse”. If you’re always represented in the language like I am (i.e. a white guy), you’re less attuned to it and less exhausted by it. And even if you want to write differently, these things still unconsciously find their way into your writing because much of what you’ve read is rife with similar language.
The fixes aren’t difficult, but you have to look for them and be willing to change your way of thinking a smidge to include people.
BTW, if you want to complain about political correctness or wokeism, this probably isn’t the website – or book – for you. I’m sorry to see you go. We’ve got a heckuva a wild fantasy ahead of us and there’s room for humans of all kinds.
I’ll start by presenting the passage in its fixed state, hoping that you’ll appreciate how it reads like a perfectly normal piece of writing, not some screed trying to brainwash you.
She shook her head, clearing her thoughts like a dog shakes out waterlogged ears. “Listen, youths are idiots when it comes to impressing someone they like. They get all sorts of notions in their heads. Probably the storybooks they read,” she said with an eye on Tildy. She continued, determined to say her piece. “Some want to be knights, fighting to prove themselves worthy of marriage and titles and lands. It makes them do reckless things.”
Tildy stared, mind reeling. What in the world was she talking about? And like a smack to the head, she understood and laughed. “You think he’s going to fight for my honor or something?”
The witch looked unhappy. “I have seen many young people rushing to battle for honor or some chivalrous reward. Only some returned, and none were the same, regardless of the prize.”
See? Perfectly normal and not brainwashy at all.
Now, many of us are familiar with the “knight in shining armor” trope, and I’ve preserved some of it because it’s a kind of story that Tildy loves, but will grow out of. You likely know the trope well enough that you guessed where I made changes. Let’s see how many you caught! Below, I’ve highlighted the words in the original passage that excluded people.
She shook her head, clearing her thoughts like a dog shakes out waterlogged ears. “Listen, boys are idiots when it comes to girls. They get all sorts of notions in their heads. Probably the storybooks they read. Same could be said for certain girls, too,” she said with an eye on Tildy. She continued, determined to say her piece. “Boys want to be knights, fighting for the hands of fair maidens. It makes them do reckless things to impress girls.”
Tildy stared at her, mind reeling. What in the world was she talking about? And like a smack to the head, she understood and laughed. “You think he’s going to fight for my honor or something?”
The witch looked unhappy. “I have seen many a lad rushing to battle for the honor of a woman’s touch. Only some returned, and none were the same, regardless of her reward.”
If you’ve read a lot of the same kinds of books as I have, that likely feels very familiar, like a well-worn sweater. And that’s part of the problem, though not the key one I wanted to change. This passage wasn’t written to be deliberately discriminatory, yet it still perpetuated some stereotypes: only males can be knights, females are distressed damsels, only fair people are worth saving, and that there are only two genders. If you have a moment, go back and re-read the first passage again, now that you’re aware of how I modified it. I’m hoping it still reads naturally as it did the first time and that you’ll feel like I improved the writing instead of sacrificing something.
When I started seriously writing twenty years ago, I discontinued the use of masculine pronouns whenever gender was in doubt. Besides being deliberately exclusionary, the rule never made sense to me as a kid, anyway. Nowadays, I’m challenging other rules and stereotypes because I think the the world can be more inclusive, which results in better stories. It also helps me grow, and hopefully, my readers, too.
Good luck with your writing!
PS: It’s funny these things still existed in the book because I’ve worked to eliminate them. I’ve even written about it here: Another Damned Damsel In Distress.
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© Michael Wallevand, August 2022