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symphony: Offensive Mistakes Well-Intentioned Writers Make


From [x] [x]

Food-Colored Skin

Not only is purple prose obnoxious; sometimes it’s downright racist. For some reason, writers have a fondness for describing dark complexions as “chocolate” or somesuch.

But wait, people like chocolate! What’s so bad about likening a skintone to something almost everyone likes?

The problem is that food-colored skin is a phenomenon mostly limited to dark-colored complexions. And it’s more than just a little creepy when strangers keep likening your skintone to an inanimate edible object. Plus, in some places “chocolate bar” is a playground taunt used to goad black children.

Not a very tasteful choice in similitudes at all.

Skin Color Only Described When Not White

In many stories, the color of a character’s skin will only be described when the character doesn’t have a fair complexion. This typically happens because the writer is white and subconsciously thinks of xir own skin color as the default and everyone else’s as the outliers. Even JK Rowling, whose books frequently focus on tolerance and equality, is guilty of this.

The solution is simple - just describe everyone’s complexion, and all will be well.

Written Accents

Written accents are offensive because they essentially tell the group whose accent is being written that “your way of talking is weird; my way is normal.”

Not only are written accents offensive to the group being represented, but they’re offensive to read because you have to spend extra time trying to sort out what the writer was trying to say.

If you want to write a character who is supposed to have an accent, use grammar and slang associated with people who have that accent. You could also just mention that they have an accent. But don’t butcher the spellings of the words. “He’s got himself in a right pickle, he has” is fine, but “‘E’s got ‘imself in a right pickle, ‘e ‘as” is not.

Things Appropriated From Other Cultures

Many new writers are bound and determined to make sure their characters have meaningful and unique names. I see many people who have clearly scoured the bowels of online baby name sites to find the perfect Vedic/Japanese/Aztec name for their white character.

This sort of thing is a form of cultural appropriation, which is a pretty huge faux pas. For the uninformed, cultural appropriation is when a member of a dominant culture takes something from an oppressed/minority culture and uses it in a shallow, trendy, or superficial way - and there’s really nothing more shallow or superficial than trying to make your character stand out by giving xir an “exotic” name instead of giving xir a memorable personality and story.

Likewise, people give their characters katanas and throw youkai into their stories for no other reason than “it’s more interesting” than Western culture. Throwing things from another culture into your story for no other reason than you think it’s “more interesting” reduces that culture to a cheap gimmick, which is pretty rude and offensive.

“Harmless” Stereotypes

The Japanese plant-lover. The wise Native American. The sexy Latina. There’s nothing bad about loving plants or being wise or sexy, so why would anyone find these offensive?

For one thing, it can create unrealistic expectations and assumptions about these people. Many Asian-Americans find themselves having to explain to people that no, they don’t know squat about gardening, really. Many Latinas would rather people didn’t expect them to be hot and spicy lovers based on their race. And contrary to what some think, Native Americans aren’t really born with a magical connection to the Earth and tend to find assumptions that they are quite irritating.

The Supercrip

There are two varieties of supercrips: the first is a disabled person who is treated as a hero just for doing everyday things that most people take for granted. It’s quite frankly condescending, and many disabled people would thank you to knock it off.

The second type is the character who has amazing skills or abilities because or in spite of xir disability. While a writer might be trying to say “just because a person has a disability, doesn’t mean they can’t be amazing!”, what the audience hears is “disabled people often have amazing abilities to make up for their disability,” which unfortunately isn’t true.

The Mighty Whitey

The Mighty Whitey is a white person (if not physically, then culturally) who finds xirself faced with the task of saving a marginalized group (often as not from other white people). The character is usually male and ends up becoming the leader of the people he just liberated, and he usually ends up with a hot ethnic-looking gal to boink. (Think Jake Sulley fromAvatar, and you’ve got the Mighty Whitey in a nutshell.) The Mighty Whitey will learn the ways of an ethnic group, and xe will become even better at them than the people who have been studying them all their lives.

What makes this trope so horrendous is the attitude of white supremacy: it implies that non-white people cannot solve their problems without a white person to help or even lead them, and that white people will always be better at everything.

Also, becoming a leader of a people whose culture you have only known/studied for a few months - or even a few years - is one of the most ridiculously puerile fantasies in existence.

Getting Mental Illnesses & Different Neurologies Wrong

Want to create a chilling plot twist? Just the killer the hero’s evil alternate personality! That’s called schizophrenia… right?

Wrong. And this type of thing is incredibly insensitive and offensive.

Aside from the fact that schizophrenia does not create multiple personalities, most people with schizophrenia and multiple personalities are quite harmless. Yet thanks to their portrayal in fiction, many people expect them to be dangerous, which makes their already-difficult lives even more difficult.

Occasionally, some people go the other direction and portray these people as innocent or even mystical. That’s positive discrimination, and that’s also bad because it creates unrealistic expectations.

Whether it’s schizophrenia, multiple personlities, autism, Asperger’s, psychopathy, sociopathy, or anything else, you’re going to use a mental disorder or alternate neurology of any kind, make sure you research it. And whatever you do,NEVER give your character a mental illness just to make xir more “interesting,” because that’s ableism.

Trying to Create an Aesop About Discrimination Without Actually Understanding the Discrimination in Question

Most people think they have a pretty good bead on what racism is all about - it’s about segregation, ugly slurs, and pointy white hats. Same goes with sexism - women can get jobs and vote now, so it must be over, right? Ha, if only.

In real life, these people are very rarely overt - in fact, most racism is extremely subtle, so subtle that the offender doesn’t even realize that what they’ve said or done is offensive or hurtful and will vehemently deny the possiblity that what they said or did could have been offensive. (A common response from these people is “I can’t be an X-ist! I have X friends!” Yeah, if only.)

Some examples of subtle discrimination:

  • Telling rowdy children to “stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians!”
  • Describing a non-white character or person as “exotic.”
  • Dressing up in Halloween costumes depicting ethnic stereotypes.
  • Insisting that a woman who does not want children right now will “change her mind” in the future.
  • Asking a woman why she’s still single if she’s so attractive.
  • Asing a woman who is angry about something if she’s on her period.
  • Insulting males who don’t live up to expectations of perceived masculinity by accusing them of acting “girly” or calling them gay.

If you want to learn more about what real discrimination of all kinds look and feel like, I recommend readingMicroaggressions. (Language warning.) Also, check out this handy-dandy list of links to privilege checklists so you can check your own privilege before writing off into the sunset.

Trying to Satirize a Thing Without Understanding Why it’s a Thing

The film Death Becomes Her satirizes the perceived vanity of performers who spend mind-blowing amounts of money on beauty products and plastic surgeries to stay young. Funny film? Yes. But it’s rather sexist in that it treats this perceived vanity as something that just happens to some women for no real reason. It ignores the fact that we live in a society obsessed with youth and that our consumerist culture has commodified it and tries to make us feel inferior every day for not buying it from them. It ignores the fact that the men in control of the entertainment industry constantly pressure women into getting plastic surgery and enhancements, even flat-out refusing to hire women who don’t meet their exact standards of beauty, regardless of their talent.

Killing Off LGBT Characters to Make an Allegedly Non-Hateful Point

There’s this thing that some writers do - they introduce an LGBT character, try to build some some sympathy for xir, and before you know it they’ve killed off this character in a manner that’s reminiscent of that old and noxious “too good for this sinful Earth” trope that pervaded Puritan literature.

This sends an absolutely terrible message to LGBT people - that the only way they can escape the shame and the hate that so often comes with being LGBT is if they die. LGBT youth are at a higher risk of committing suicide already - clearly, this is not a message we want to be sending.

Forgetting Women of Color in Female-Oriented Entertainment

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Charmed. Pan Am. Sex in the City. All of these female-aimed shows exhibit distinctly monochrome casting choices. Sure, Charmed was sort of justified in that the three leads were supposed to be sisters. But Pan Am has no excuse - and there were plenty of non-white stewardesses in the 60’s.

Multi-Racial Groups Always With a White at the Helm

This wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t keep happening all the time. But invariably, whenever there’s a multi-racial group or team of some kind, the leader will invariably be white. The implication is that while non-whites are good enough to have on a team, they still aren’t leadership material.

The Fairytale Gypsy

You know the character type - they live in wagons, wear colorful clothing, read fortunes, and play a mean fiddle.

The trouble is, what you see in fiction is a romanticized version of a very ugly reality: “Gypsy” is actually a racial slur for the Roma and Dom people. The reason they’re nomads is because racists have a habit of routing them out whenever they try to settle down, and their eclectic fashion comes from having to wear whatever they can get. Also, they’re no more magical than you or me.

Their portrayal in many fantasies perpetuates the myth that these people are fairytale creatures who vanished along with Long Ago And Far Away, rather than real people who suffer systemic oppression today.

(Source: officialactiiigirl, via authordog)





So I reblogged this before, but I actually wanted to stop and saying something, which is this:

Everyone who writes has felt that moment of “EVERYTHING HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE I’M A FAKE I’M A FAILURE I’M WORTHLESS,” and it’s always been over a moment like this one.  That moment where you realize your idea has been done before.  But here’s the thing.  Ideas aren’t worthless, but they’re the pennies of your novel.  They’re the smallest component.

Execution, on the other hand…that’s what does everything.  That’s your dollar bills, stuffed into the jar until you have enough to go on the biggest adventure of your life.

So write your story where the mermaid falls in love with the boy who lives on land.  Write him becoming a merman for her, or write him as a her, or write your sea witch as the heroine, or write your mermaid as a villain.  Write a world.  The idea, that’s a penny you found in the street.  All the real value is going to come from you.

This, this, this. :)

THIS. Execution is key.


Novels have been around for more then three centuries, maybe even more.

Do you think your idea hasn’t been thought up before?

No idea is original on this earth, no matter how creative it can be, one other has probably thought of the same thing in their life time.

In turn, what does it matter if its “not creative?” Fuck em’. Write what you want to write, you’re not a failure, you’re a visionary, and you know what the difference if between you and the ones who also dared to dream of the same things you dreamt?

You have the will and the determination to put it out there.

(Source: , via authordog)

“Writing Advice: by Chuck Palahniuk

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The
mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.

Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.

Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”

A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

For example:
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”


“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.

And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.


For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.

Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.

“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”

“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”

“Larry knew he was a dead man…”

Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.

—   (via 1000wordseveryday)

(Source: redactedbeastie, via authordog)














(via authordog)



A - Z of Unusual Words

This is beautiful. It brings tears to my eyes.


(via authordog)


Why not eat an actual rainbow’s worth of colours and brighten up that dull, boring pasta salad? Rainbow Pasta Salad with Vidalia Onion-Blue Poppyseed Dressing is a summer dream dinner!

(via anxietymom)




(Source: mmm-how-about-no, via anxietymom)


How To Train Your Humans


How To Train Your Humans

(Source: epic-humor, via anxietymom)

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

—   Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (via smallestworldever)

(Source: resttinpieces, via anxietymom)