Hit Refresh! Editing for unconscious bias

Last year I read a novel that was ruined (for me) by this: A family with adult children finds out that one of the kids, for some urgent business reason, needs $150,000 right away or something horrible will occur. It is supposedly a dramatic plot point. But the family – which seems financially comfortable but not wealthy – bemoans the situation over lunch, changing the subject mid-meal. Then they head to the beach with an ‘I guess we’ll figure it out!’ attitude. (Later, of course, $150,000 materializes handily.)

It read like the author had been financially privileged since birth, and couldn’t grasp how needing that much cash could be a crisis. Normal people blasé about – and then rapidly obtaining – $150k didn’t ring true. The stuff that tethers our writing to our own existential bubbles is insidious. Rooting out unconscious biases requires vigilance – and lots of re-reading.

I’m not just here to point fingers. Combing through my own work in progress recently was rather a kick in the ass.

My pages had languished for months while life spun faster than usual (cross-country move, settling family into new home and community). When I finally attained sufficient equilibrium to open the neglected Word doc, I was shocked. Not by the prose or the groundwork. And not because I’d lost interest in the characters and my dastardly plans for them. The problem outran those familiar pitfalls.

While I’d swear on a stack of Zeppelin records that I’m too evolved for gender stereotypes and patriarchal messaging, um, those things had snuck into my pages. There were at least a half-dozen instances where I had fallen into a paradigm I’d be the first to say is outdated and restrictive.

I confess this to you now as penance and offer a few examples from my pages:

#1: Long-married character reaches for her kitchen shears while going about business in her kitchen. Why are they her kitchen when she has a husband and three kids who also use the kitchen and the shears?

#2: A couple steals an afternoon quickie, and the wife goes through some particular motions because they’re her husband’s preference. Why wouldn’t the motions be her preference; after all, she chose to go through them!

#3: Everyone, from early teens to adults, was hetero. Which is obviously ridiculous. What is wrong with me?

Disappointed, I fixed it all, small revisions (their kitchen shears, her preferred position, a sexuality spectrum) that located the story more accurately in 2018.

Obviously if the goal is to tell a tale involving traditional sex roles, that’s one thing. But that wasn’t my goal. My story is contemporary, and the characters are traditional in many respects. Or so I’d thought till I looked again.

My fresh lens on gender roles arrived courtesy of my daughter. She’s always played with boys and worn dresses only under duress. In third grade she begged to join Boy Scouts (they refused). Now she’s a ninth-grader eschewing makeup and getting her hair buzzed by a barber.

She’s taking a class called Social Justice, and has grown fiercely attuned to issues of representation, heteronormativity, gendered media messaging and the countless ways society imposes rules and roles on people starting before birth. She’s making me more sensitive and aware, as a person and a writer.

But if you lack an opinionated, gender-dismissive teenager to remind you of these issues daily, or if you’re so wealthy you need regular people to check your work and flag bank account cluelessness, there are alternatives.

First, read stories by and about people in circumstances relevant to the tales we want to tell. If I want to depict a current-day teen dating scene in the New York suburbs, my memories of California high school in the 80s are not going to cut it.

Next, seek out readers with differing perspectives and experiences. Whether it’s a subject matter expert reading a single scene or chapter, or a beta reader red-penciling every page, it’s likely to improve the work. Potential readers beyond the writing group: Book store employees, librarians, educators, Uncle Joe flying the Tea Party flag in Alabama. The vet. The babysitter. The plow guy. The bartender. Doesn’t hurt to ask.

Finally, my favorite: Talk to people. My work in progress involves a small town election – not my area of expertise. So I invited two elected officials in Massachusetts to coffee, took notes for about 90 minutes as they commiserated with each other about campaign experiences (I asked some questions as prompts), and learned more than I might have in weeks of reading.

My daughter charges reasonable rates – around $150,000 per chapter – if you need a 14-year-old’s perspective on anything.


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