Monday, February 16, 2015

Considerate Craft: What to Do When You Screw Up

So you screwed up in your book. And not little screwups like putting checkered cabs in modern New York or characters using chloroform like it’s a safe and easy sedative. Something hurtful, something racist or sexist or any of the ways that is someone in a position of power punching down with words.*

You didn’t mean to. Or maybe you meant to, but you thought it served a purpose but now you realize that purpose hurt marginalized readers in the name of teaching non-marginalized readers.

What do you do now? There are a lot of ways to respond; you’ve probably heard about the times an author has responded in not the best way. It’s a complex thing when you hurt people with your words, so it’s best to take care and be thoughtful. Here are some ways I suggest to respond:

1. Do Better

Regardless of how else you respond, this is the must. You fell short of your goals as a writer and so next time you must do better. Deepen your research, widen your experiences, become better aware of hurtful tropes and stereotypes. You don’t know what you don’t know so it takes time and study.

2. Listen

When we’re criticized, our first impulse is to defend ourselves. Fight that impulse. No matter how much research you’ve done, no matter how close you are to being the character you’re writing, you can get it wrong. So it’s important to hear out your critics, to give yourself time to process the content of their complaint even if it comes in a form that has you bristling.

3. Apologize

And none of this “I’m sorry if people were offended.” That’s not an apology. You’ve hurt people. “I’m sorry. I did not realize it was hurtful when I wrote it, but I should have known better. Now I do and I will strive to be better in the future.”

4. Accept

You can try to do everything right. You can do the research, have the beta readers, apologize for your mistakes and learn from them, and there will still be people who do not accept your apologies. There will be people who are not polite about their anger. There will be people who don’t think someone from a privileged position have a place writing from a marginalized point of view. None of these reactions are wrong; people are allowed to feel complexly about complex issues.** You will never please everyone. Accept that.

There is some advice out there, and lots of instances of author reactions. You might find these links useful.

Kameron Hurley’s “Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories”

s.e. smith’s “Get Over the Notion of Unproblematic Media”

Malinda Lo’s “Should white people write about people of color?”

Jim Hines’ “Stumbling Over Gender, and an Apology”

Veronica Roth’s “The Mistakes Writers Make”

*This does not include claims of “this book is racist against white people” or “I’m offended by the presence of gay people in this book.” Those are ridiculous and ignorant in themselves.

**Feeling complexly does not mean threats, stalking, or physical harm are okay, of course.


  1. excellent points made here. Thanks for sharing!
    Cheers! S.J. Francis

  2. I love this post and the also the posts you linked to. I worry about this in my writing, that no amount of research is ever going to be enough, that I will blithely write damaging tropes and the published work will hurt people. Acknowledging one's one mistakes as a writer and listening, really listening to the reactions, as you advise, I think is so valuable.