Racist? Me?

How to avoid being unintentionally offensive

Lee Dickinson Word Wise copywriting

By Lee Dickinson

The racism debate is coming to a page near you.

If you write or edit anything, be aware the reflection and rage after George Floyd’s death isn’t confined to the streets. As the focus widened from anger at the authorities in the US to the likes of statues in the UK, social media was already alive with arguments about racist language. If you post on any social platform, write a blog or books, have a website, or write any company literature, you could be next in line for wrath.

Spooked by that? Please don’t be, because “spook” is one  example of a word now dubbed racist.

Such pitfalls make writing before you had to weigh every word seem like a picnic. Please don’t say that either, because “picnic” is another.

The list of provocative words is jaw-dropping, and I’ve included some below. There are too many for it to be exhaustive, however, and that’s the problem. How do you write these days without fear of offending?

For me as an editor and writer, it’s an eye-opener. Language by its nature becomes as embedded as those controversial statues, so negotiating a safe path is like tip-toeing through a minefield. To focus my mind even more, I’m about to schedule the editing of a book about Rudolf Hess, Winston Churchill and the Nazis. Gulp.

For that novel, I’ll have to consider racism alongside historical accuracy, the author’s wishes and potential charges of “airbrushing” history. For simpler manuscripts, the best safeguards seem to be sensitivity and staying as updated as possible on potential problems.

Should you avoid or change the likes of “blackmail”, “black sheep”, “blacklist”, “black mark”, “blackball” or “black market”?

Psychotherapist Dee Watts-Jones1 said such “subtle racism” offends her. “The English language is in bed with racism,” she wrote. “Regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism. With a term like black sheep, consider coming up with another term.”

It can’t hurt to look for non-offensive alternatives, can it? I find Watts-Jones’ suggestion of a replacement for “black sheep” obtrusive and unrealistic, because she suggests “one-down” sheep?

That won’t be making it into anything I edit but, depending on the context, something like “outcast” or “pariah” might. For “blackmail”, we might use something like “extortion”, for “black mark” could substitute “blemish”, replace “blacklist” with “boycott”, use “veto” for “blackball”, “illicit” for “black market”.

The context is important, but you get the idea. Editors change words constantly, so is it much of an extra effort to change a few more?

The examples above are obvious but, as promised, here’s some you might not know:  

Word Matters, the blog, is here.

    • Spook – Used as a racist slur historically, say race and identity reporting team Code Switch
    • Picnic – Debated by some, but widely reported to be associated with racist mobs and an abbreviated form of “pick one to lynch”
    • Hip hip hooray – A rallying cry, apparently, for 19th-century racists who rounded up Jews
    • Black – A raft of respected writers’ style guides have now reviewed and pronounced “Black”, not “black”, as correct when referring to a person, not a general colour
    • Uppity – Originally used in the US to refer to any slave who stood up to racism
    • Long time no see – Native Americans were mocked with this as a reference to their traditional greeting
    • Sold down the river – Another phrase related to the slave trade, which transported captives to cotton plantations via the Mississippi or Ohio rivers
    • No can do – An imitation of pidgin English originally used to mock Chinese immigrants
    • Scalp – According to one language watchdog, this should be avoided because of connotations of violence toward indigenous people.

A minefield indeed. And, to be ultra-careful, should we also avoid the likes of “thug”, “cannibal”, “vandal”, “hooligan” and “barbarian”? Have all these words evolved, becoming far removed from the original, removing any offence? To many, no.

As the words above show, it’s easy to transgress accidentally. But, if you stumble into ‘racism’ that way, it’s simple to consider the offence to others once it’s pointed out and fix it. For those helping to modernise our language by revealing such issues, it should also be easy to remember the offence is usually unintended. Only by calmly working together can we use words to heal wounds.

Other resources to help spot potentially racist language:

Lee Dickinson is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly SfEP). He’s a former journalist who now works as a copywriter and editor. You can contact him here, at CIEP, by email via or through the platforms below.

Copyright © 2020, Lee Dickinson, Word Wise Web Ltd. All rights reserved.

19 biggest fiction writing mistakes

The 19 Biggest Mistakes Fiction Writers Make

Avoiding these errors is the easiest way to improve your book

Lee Dickinson Word Wise copywriting

By Lee Dickinson

1 – Giving readers what they want
That tension when you read great fiction has been planted by a master manipulator. Clever writers toy with your emotions, keeping you reading. One way is by delaying resolutions. If you’ve set up a “Wow, what’s going to happen here?” moment, keep it simmering as long as possible. Readers will hate you, and love you.

2 – Settling for imperfection
Writing’s about getting it right, not getting it right first time. Your first effort won’t be perfect, and leaving it like that is the lazy option. This isn’t a slur on your writing talent; D H Lawrence did at least seven drafts of The Rainbow. His hard work produced a novel with none of the results of lazy writing: cliches, adverbs, poor imagery, waffle.

3 – Showing off
You’re probably a good writer; so good you need to show the world. Great. Keep that passion. But keep it tamed, because if your ‘brilliant writing’ takes over, your story will be ruined. Think of the best fiction you’ve read. What do you remember? Any verbose, flowery descriptions and sublime metaphors, or the crafted plot and compelling characters? Readers want stories, not egos.

4 – Telling
“Jill’s attractive” or “Jack’s eyes bulged as Jill catwalked in”? You should show, not tell.

5 – Bad plots
Even the greatest would struggle to write well about a string of business meetings, including the motorways, lay-bys and service station menus on the way there, or a retired spinster with an aversion to baking. You couldn’t make it up, but they (sort of) did. It’s interesting to the writer, usually because it happened to them. Before committing months or years to your book, is the plot worth it?

6 – Bad characters
Characters should have character. Readers might spend hours with them, but only if they’re not a one-dimensional plot device. Would you spend time with a cardboard cut-out? Make them human; give them flaws, conflicts, a previous life. Focus on making your main character believable without stressing about likeability.

7 – Bad grammar, spelling, punctuation
No excuses. A talented artist doesn’t slap paint around, so writers shouldn’t abuse words by ignoring the basics of their use. If you struggle here, get the best editor you can.

8 – Static descriptions
It’s a book, so there’s lots to include, but your reader will lose interest if you stop the story to ‘info dump’. Avoiding this is vital at your novel’s start. Weave the essential details into the action instead, keeping at least one filmable element on every page.

9 – Camera jerk
“Jack drummed his fingers as the wind howled outside. He thought about Jill’s blonde hair as the clock struck.” The writer directs the reader’s ‘camera’ and, here, it’s being directed at the fingers, then outside to the wind, back to Jack and his thoughts, then to a clock. Don’t do that, because you’ll confuse the reader. Keep the ‘camera’ smooth.

10 – Voids
That ‘camera’ above can’t work if there’s nothing to film. Amateur writers often set chapters, even most of their books, in apparently featureless voids. Readers don’t need an inventory of interior decoration, but at least give them some broad brushstrokes showing where the action is.

Word Matters, the blog, is here.

11 – Inconsistent view
Who’s telling your story, and where are they? Does a God-like storyteller have access to the thoughts of many characters, or is your main character recounting events after they happen? The latter won’t have access to anyone’s thoughts but their own, or knowledge of events they haven’t witnessed, so you can only include them from another point of view.

12 – Weak chapters
Even entertaining or beautifully written chapters must move the story forward. Jack’s a funny main character, but he can’t enjoy a pub sesh with japester pal Bob while he should be saving the world. Pinpoint your weakest chapter. Ditch it. What about your next weakest?

13 – Repetition
A wise editor explained this through bad maths: one plus one equals a half. Every repetition of the same point reduces its impact. Credit your reader with some intelligence, and save them time by making your one reference superb.

14 – Lack of realism
Hollywood gets away with this, but you won’t. Sprinting through a house? Driving through a bridge crash barrier with a Fiat Tipo? A previously quiet character having a chinwag which reveals essential plot points? You’re creating a new reality, so make it realistic.

15 – Intrusion
“Jill trudged up the sun-baked hill, surely proving a global warming theory now backed by thousands of eminent researchers.” Your views matter, but not in your story. The ‘voice’ of your storyteller should also be consistent; readers will be confused if a discreet narrator morphs into a shock jock. Honestly, that happens.

16 – Bad dialogue
Speech in your novels should be punchy and important. Don’t, for example, have phone calls agreeing the details of a meet, including the range of behind-bar snacks. Yes, that happens too. Silently arrange the meeting, briefly set the scene and focus characters on the main issue. Exchanges work well as a tennis-like rally, with each trying to win the point. If their ‘answers’ raise more questions, even better.

17 – False starts
Most new writers start novels in the wrong place. They often introduce their main character and wait until that’s done before adding action or intrigue. Sometimes, a major event starts a novel, but we don’t know the main character it’s happening to, so the impact’s lost. For a gripping start, combine characterisation and action.

18 – Wasting words
It is the best policy when you are writing properly to simply use as few words as is humanly possible. Or: writers should love words, not waste them? That’s seven words instead of 20. Using fewer words makes them more potent.

19 – Being passive
You’ve made your characters interesting, right? Active? Do the same with your sentences. “The book was written by Jill” is better as “Jill wrote the book”. The change shifts the subject of the sentence from a book to Jill.

Lee Dickinson is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly SfEP). He’s a former journalist who now works as a copywriter and editor. You can contact him here, at CIEP, by email via or through the platforms below.

Copyright © 2020, Lee Dickinson, Word Wise Web Ltd. All rights reserved.


You’ve PLANNED your book? Take note …

The quickest way to become a writing genius?

Lee Dickinson Word Wise copywriting

By Lee Dickinson

You should skim this blog. Don’t absorb the words, just get through them. Read them quickly even if you love to savour words, and if going back properly later, in total, takes you more time and ruins your enjoyment. 

But, you ask, can I read it the way I prefer? The way that works for me? With the same approach I adopt in the rest of my life, staying true to my personality?

No, because I’m a ‘pantser’, and there is no way but mine …

Every day, pantsers are out in social media force urging writers to bash out something, anything. They’re armed with images of sea sunrises, misty forests and, once, a gorilla? Writing for them seems to be more of a holiday romance than a relationship, so they’ve got ages to spend online with stock images. Quotes are their main cudgel, though, with Stephen King and Margaret Atwood their favourites.

Trot out a few examples like that and the case is apparently proven, especially if you don’t acknowledge those famous writers are the exceptions. I’ll tell you what the pantsers don’t: Stephen King is a one-in-a-billion writer; trying to ape his method will backfire. 

Books are complicated, rarely come together on the hoof, so why would writers not plan for that complexity? Where else would pantsers call for that to be ignored? Would they have paced the floor of the Sistine Chapel with a rollerbrush, yanking on the scaffolding and shouting: “Oy, Mick, get a bloody shift on”?

There’s doubt over the truth of many pantsers’ claims anyway. The kudos of being able to slap it down and produce a masterpiece is alluring. That makes them geniuses, right?

Probably, but digging deeper might reveal something else. The accounts of writing binges producing literary classics need scrutiny because, for example, tales of a 12-week Jack Kerouac bender culminating in On The Road ignore the nine-year gap between his inspiration and the finished book. Kurt Vonnegut’s claims of one-session finished manuscripts are folklore, but his son Mark inherited his trunk and found it crammed with drafts, outlines and abandoned attempts.

That’s inconvenient when you’re an evangelical pantser; better to focus on myth and emotion. Type “pantser author” in your search engine and you’ll see. 

“I’m just too impatient to get writing,” crows one, as if impatience is a virtue that somehow proves her superior love of words. 

“It’s SOOO exciting,” coos another. 

“I wrote my book in a few weeks,” chimes someone else, “then spent years trying to fix it. Never again.” 

Such rewriting is a huge task, so what are the chances of it being completed by impatient pantsers craving excitement? That means a binned manuscript, which surely wasn’t the aim?

Word Matters, the blog, is here.

The main reason to challenge pantser recruitment is the end result. ‘Plots’ which would benefit from at least being scrawled on a bus ticket have instead been hurled out in the same disposable manner as their battered keyboards. ‘Characters’, especially villains, are cardboard instead of flesh. A developmental edit should highlight this and other problems, but your editor’s exactly that, not a magician.

I wrote my first novel as a pantser, and it was dreadful. Did I enjoy the writing process? Not when I later realised how bad it was, and that it should have been planned from the start. 

The pantser approach can only work if goals are realistic. Get it traditionally published? Forget it. Treat writing as a thrill-seeking adventure then use the end result as a doorstop? Probably. Forget about the failure but become a pantser recruitment sergeant anyway? Definitely.

They hate planning – I get it. Speed is vital to them – OK. They love words so much they have to get them down instantly – lovely. I’ve heard. Repeatedly.

Just as they love to freefall, though, plotters enjoy pulling the planning ripcord and gliding to earth. 

It’s the way I work as an editor and proofreader, which demand a structured, careful approach. It extends to my writing. The method works for me, but it might not for you, so I’m not trying to recruit. Good luck finding your own writing way. That might even be as a pantser, if you’re a genius. Writing for excitement is attractive, but the adrenalin needs to be tempered with realism and honesty.

Please, pantsers, stop trying to recruit from the ranks of the plotters, who are unfit to behold your genius anyway. Or, if you can’t curb your zeal, admit you’ll bin your words or spend more time rewriting than you would’ve spent plotting.

Lee Dickinson is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly SfEP). He’s a former journalist who now works as a copywriter and editor. You can contact him here, at CIEP, by email via or through the platforms below.

Copyright © 2020, Lee Dickinson, Word Wise Web Ltd. All rights reserved.

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