The responsibilities of writers

So, just about a week after my post wherein I questioned the use of swearing in Young Adult novels, I came across a Huffington Post article in which the author analyzes the use of the word “bitch”, including its etymology and how its meaning has gradually shifted over decades from “a female dog” to, well, a vulgar epithet directed at women. And although I still think it slightly diminishes the full effect of the scene in which I used the word, I decided to rewrite it a bit and remove the swearing.

And, no, I did not substitute the word “whore”, either. While it would pass through the censors with no problems, I think that word is just as bad, if not worse. So where the character once said, “Ow! You stupid bitch!” the sentence now reads: “Ow!” he yelled with a string of curses… It’s not as specific, but I still got my point across.

This decision was spurred in part by a post that I read a few days ago and found incredibly insightful. In it, the author (among other things) reminds writers that they have a duty to their audience. That is to say, as a YA author, I have a responsibility to carefully select words when I describe my characters. Upon reading the post, I immediately realized that I have a moment in which I refer to a character as a “girly-girl”, albeit one who can rebuild a transmission. I realized that my use of that phrase was a kind of shorthand – everyone has in their mind what a “girly-girl” is. But is it fair? I mean, girls aren’t the only ones who like fashion (which was how I intended to describe her). So that was changed, too. (I now refer to her as a “proper fashionista,” which is something I think is a bit more descriptive than “girly-girl.”)

I’m learning a lot more about myself as a writer than I had ever thought I might. And because I’m writing for the Young Adult audience – with my nieces in mind – I really do have an obligation to not only craft stories with strong, complex characters who can handle whatever life throws their way but to also carefully tell those stories and present those characters in the most specific and gender-neutral language I can.



  1. Rebecca

    It’s so inspiring to see a writer truly push themselves to use words that don’t perpetuate sexism and misogyny, no matter how mild or well-meant. I salute you! (And thanks so much for the link-up!)

    • E.M.

      Oh, no – thank YOU for reminding me of the power writers unwittingly wield over the masses – especially when writing to younger readers.

      As for the link, I really hope other writers read your thoughts on this subject and take it to heart. I set out to write something I want my nieces to read, and it does no good for me to perpetuate this sexist kind of shorthand for them to read. I have two beautiful, intelligent, funny, and strong-willed nieces, and I want them to grow into confident, strong women. Your post helped me reframe certain scenes and view them from another perspective, so for that, I thank you. 🙂

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