Advice For Making Your Writing More Inclusive

by Charlotte Ahlin

Now, more than ever, we need diverse books. We need to read and promote the writing of marginalized authors, or the literary world is going to become one big wash of books about white boys and their dogs. Or middle aged white English professors and their teenage girlfriends. Now is the time to diversify your library. And, if you're a writer, now is the time to make your own writing more inclusive.

And when I say "make your writing more inclusive," I don't mean "just add a character from another country who has a funny accent and maybe wears a funny hat." Please do not do that. Most of us have read books in which our gender, or race, or orientation is grossly misrepresented, and it's not cute (I'm looking at you, every boy in my freshman year writing workshop). Inclusive writing is not about adding token characters to earn diversity points. It's about trying to understand life experiences outside of your own before you put pen to paper. And it's not always easy.

I mean... do you try to write characters of different backgrounds, genders, cultures, etc, in order to make your writing more inclusive? Or do you stick to writing characters who are somewhat like you, because you don't want to speak for someone else's experience? Like most things worth doing, writing inclusive, diverse fiction is difficult. Here are some tips from writers who've been there before:


Junot Diaz: The Baseline Is, You Suck

"The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck. The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women's representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am." — Junot Díaz


Rukhsana Khan: Do Your Homework

" advice to anyone wanting to write about another culture is first and foremost do your homework. Don’t take any detail (like pubic hair) for granted. Secondly, sublimate your own cultural values and prejudices for the duration of the book. Write true to that culture and to your characters. And most of all, respect the culture you’re writing about. That way if anyone steps up to challenge your work, and you can bet someone might just do that, at least you’ll be satisfied that you did your best." — Rukhsana Khan


Kathryn Tanquary: Primary Sources Are Your Friend

"The important point here is recognizing the differences between primary and secondary sources. A secondary source would be a comprehensive history of the Middle East. A primary source would be the diary of a Palestinian girl. If you’re writing about a modern culture, there’s a wealth of primary resources available through the internet. Find out what real people are talking about, what they’re concerned with in their daily lives... Always, always treat your characters as individuals. No single character should be an ambassador for an entire group or culture. Don’t feel like you have to cram every little bit of research in. Readers should identify with your character’s human characteristics over everything else. The most interesting thing about Katniss Everdeen is not her cool hunting skills, but her unfaltering love for her sister that makes readers invest in her as a character. Remember your primary sources!" — Kathryn Tanquary


Rumaan Alam: Check Yourself

"To tell the story that I wanted to tell I needed to reach very far from myself, my own life, my own experiences, well past the point of write what you know. I don't mind admitting that I found it very unsettling. Uncertainty is just a condition of my life—is the lasagna going to turn out badly, am I a bad parent, am I a terrible writer. But the particular uncertainty surrounding what I was writing was different... Much as I tried to push forward in my work, I couldn't help stopping every so often to ask myself whether I was mansplaining. I don't think this is a bad thing!" — Rumaan Alam


Daniel José Older: Think About Power In Your Writing

"They say conflict is the true backbone of story, and power is what makes conflict matter. But fiction classes rarely offer up a real discussion of power and its discontents. As fiction writers, we’re not expected to be well versed in writing about power, the minutia, subtlety, complexity of it, the heartache. Usually, factual research replaces the in-depth conversations about oppression and resistance. There is only so much time. Understanding power matters more than the factual details. Every character has a relationship to power. This includes institutional, interpersonal, historical, cultural. It plays out in the micro-aggressions and hate crimes, sex, body image, life-changing decisions, everyday annoyances and the depth of historical community trauma. Power affects a character’s relationship to self and others, and their emotional and physical journey through the story. If you ignore this, you get cutout dolls or white faces painted black." — Daniel José Older


Kwame Dawes: Stereotyped Writing Is Bad Writing

“Racist writing is a craft issue... A racist stereotype is a cliché. It’s been done. Quite a bit. It’s a craft failure.” — Kwame Dawes


Malinda Lo: There Are No Shortcuts

"Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t. The writer must put in the time so that they become confident in their decisions, and there are a million and one decisions to make when writing a novel. If you’re a white writer who wants to write about a culture not your own, go for it. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do it. Some people will prefer that you don’t, but those people don’t speak for everyone. On the other hand, if you’re terrified of writing outside your culture, you don’t have to. There’s not necessarily any reason for you to do something that makes you that uncomfortable. I believe that writing is a personal thing, and you should write what you personally want to write." — Malinda Lo


Toni Morrison: Imagining Others Is The Power of Writing

"The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power." — Toni Morrison