Editing Tips #3: Gendered Language

For my 3rd post on editing tips, I’d like to talk about gendered language. By gendered language, I am referring to the use of gendered nouns and pronouns when describing an unnamed individual or individuals – generic people on the street, soldiers, priests, etc.

When we use gendered language when we are referring to a person who could be any gender, we are removing the voice of non-binary people. We are also potentially removing the voice of binary people who are deliberately excluded. After all, if the militia is made up of mixed genders, but we refer to its members as militiamen, we are erasing the existence of the women and non-binary folks who belong to it.

The same is true of pronouns. If we use he or she when the person we’re describing could be any gender, we are making our writing less inclusive. When it doubt, use ‘they’ as the pronoun for a generic person or group of people.

Below are some specific examples to be mindful of in writing:

  • Gendered professions: fireman, militiamen, washer woman, seamstress, stewardess. Replace with firefighter, militia members or militia folk, washer or launderer, tailor, flight attendant.
  • Gendering generic characters. When we’re referring to people in mixed groups by a specific gender – folks on the street, an order of priests, or any other group that could be mixed – we are reinforcing patriarchal notions of gender roles. Some good gender-neutral examples: townsfolk, folk, people, officers, clergy.
  • Use of gendered language when referring to groups historically associated with a particular gender. We should avoid using ‘men’ to refer to people in a military group (i.e. the king’s men) unless that group is specifically all men (and in that case, we should examine if there is a compelling reason to exclude everyone else). Instead, use minions, people, servants, warriors, or whatever other non-gender specific term fits. Not only will your writing be more specific, but it will also be more inclusive.

Editing Tips #2: Filler Words

For my 2nd post on common editing issues, I’m going to talk about filler words.
When talking about filler in writing, editors are referring to words and phrases that add no additional meaning to a sentence. The sentence would function fine without these words.
Filler words dilute the impact of sentences. The extra words require your reader to mentally process more to get to the point of your sentence (you don’t want that).

Finally, they bloat your word count. It’s rare for writers to be too economical with their words; it’s far more common for them to struggle with excess. Every word you can delete from your manuscript without losing meaning is a word you want to murder.

What are some examples of filler words?
1) Sensory words. If your sentence includes a variant of see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, you may need to revise it.
A) Tanya saw Maria pass by her office.
B) Maria passed by Tanya’s office.

Which of these is better? Most of the time, B. Why? Unless it is crucial that we call out Tanya seeing this, it’s enough to say that the event happened. If the story is from Tanya’s perspective, we must assume that she has seen everything she is reporting about.

2) Appears, seems, looks, etc. This is the same issue as with the sensory words above. Usually, we use these to indicate that the speaker isn’t sure of something. But we don’t need to do that.
A) It looks to me like you’re heading to the office.
B) Are you heading to the office? | You’re heading to the office.
Unless it’s truly crucial that we specify the speaker isn’t sure about their assertion, leave these words out.

3) Is (and it’s variants). We try to avoid using is as the primary verb of a sentence. It lacks impact and dilutes meaning.
A) The focus of our group is bird watching.
B) Our group focuses on bird watching.
Which of these is better? Almost always B. Why? Focus is a much more impactful verb than is. Also, B uses fewer words to accomplish the same purpose.

4) Adverbs ending in -ly. Adverbs can add useful detail to a sentence, but more often than not, they end up telling the reader instead of showing them.
A) “I’ve had it!” said Vivian, furiously.
B) “I’ve had it!” Vivian stomped down the hall to her room, slamming the door behind her.
Sentence B describes what Vivian did, which makes it clear she was angry.

5) Simply, basically, highly, perhaps, maybe, somehow, sort of, kind of, a little, clearly, obviously, definitely, just, merely, absolutely, naturally, really, very, quite. We already talked about adverbs, but there is a subset that’s particularly problematic.
A) “Simply turn the allen wrench three times, counterclockwise, until widget C aligns with doohickey A.”
B) “Turn the allen wrench three times, counterclockwise, until widget C aligns with doohickey A.”
What purpose did “simply” serve in the sentence? None. And worse, it might offend or frustrate your readers. What if they don’t think it’s simple or have difficulty with it? The same is true for the other words I highlighted. We can’t assume something is basic, clear, obvious, or definite to other people.

6) That, of (or all of). When writing any manuscript, viciously prune for this word. If a sentence is as clear without “that” is it is with it, get rid of it.
A) Pamela thought that Gaurav took her lunch money.
B) Pamela thought Gaurav took her lunch money.
Sentence B is as clear as A, so there’s no reason to use that.
A) All of Myron’s writing needs revision.
B) Myron’s writing needs revision.

7) So, mostly, most times, in order to, often, oftentimes. These are leading words, and most of the time you can leave them out.
A) Often, the best thing we can do is sleep on it.
B) The best thing we can do is sleep on it.
People use these words as a transition, but they aren’t necessary.

8) In my humble opinion, needless to say, for what it’s worth. Do we need to tell people our opinion is humble? If it’s needless to say, why say it? For what it’s worth means nothing.
A) In my humble opinion, Charles is an ass.
B) Charles is an ass.
It’s clearly your opinion of him.

9) Actual. Doesn’t add anything to a sentence.
A) Henry found the actual weapon Christina used to murder Fannie.
B) Henry found the weapon Christina used to murder Fannie.
People sometimes use actual when they want to emphasize the novelty or strangeness of a situation. But the situation should make that obvious.

10) Redundant words. Advance warning (warning is always advance); add an additional (just use add); added bonus (a bonus is, by definition, added); absolutely essential (essential is already superlative).
A) He had advance warning about the attack.
B) He had ample warning about the attack.
If the goal is to show how much warning he had, use a more specific word.

11) Redundant prepositions. Meet with, bought up, sold off, this time around. In all of these, the preposition adds nothing.
A) Tangina sold off all her worldly possessions.
B) Tangina sold all her worldly possessions

These are just a sample of some of the worst offenders. When editing your writing (or someone else’s), mercilessly trim any word that isn’t necessary to make your sentence clear. Don’t do this to the point where the sentence looks like it was written by a robot, and it isn’t as crucial to do this in dialogue (it should sound like real people).

Editing Tips #1: Passive Voice

I wanted to start a series of posts about common issues editors see again and again while editing manuscripts (including RPG manuscripts). Let me know if you find this valuable and if there are topics you’d like me to cover. Now on to the content.

Passive Voice…

Which of these sentences is better?
1) “The apple was eaten.”
2) “Bob ate the apple.”

In sentence #1, “something” is being done to “something else” by “someone”. This sentence construct requires more words (bad), is harder for our brains to process (bad), and can lead to ambiguity (really bad).

How can it lead to ambiguity? People often write sentences in which it isn’t clear who is doing the action.

Good: Bob ate the apple.
Bad: The apple was eaten by Bob.
Worse: The apple was eaten.
Why is the 2nd sentence problematic? In both sentences, Bob is the one doing the action, but the second sentence focuses on the apple rather than the person eating it.

The 3rd sentence is even worse because we don’t know who did the eating. Is it referring to the state of the apple (that it is a half-eaten or entirely devoured apple), or is it talking about the fact that someone ate it? We can avoid this problem altogether by using the active voice. Tell us who ate that delicious apple. Make them the star of the show. Why make your readers guess?

There are exceptions where we do want to focus on the intended target of the action as opposed to the person doing the action. This happens sometimes in RPG mechanics text. In each of these instances, decide if it’s absolutely necessary that the “victim” or “target” of the action be the subject of the sentence. If it makes just as much sense when you write in the active voice, use the active voice. Only use passive voice if it makes things easier to understand (which is rare).

Up ↑