Don’t write a clunker: Context and care vital, but often overlooked

In the space of less than 24 hours, I read two different writers refer to someone who is black as “colored.”

The day before, I read another writer’s reference to a “black nurse” when there was no reason to mention her race.

None of these were period pieces set in some other time or place with a recognition that those words were used deliberately. All  three books are memoirs by people presenting their thoughts with a 2012 point of view.

I haven’t developed a sudden love for memoirs (and don’t expect to any time soon). I am a judge in a publisher’s self-published book contest and I’m reading 50 self-published memoirs between now and Aug. 1.  Some are good, some are bad. That much immersion, though, in books that largely haven’t gone through the kind of editing process they should helps to crystallize some important writing musts.

All three of the writers are in their 70s.  The two who used the term colored both live in the South. I know some will say age and place excuse them — they are a product of their generation or culture and mean no disrespect. I won’t go into the fact that now, 50 years after the general population began to recognize a civil rights struggle that had been going on for more than a century, that argument has worn pretty thin.

What I will say is this — whether that excuse is valid or not for someone in casual conversation, it’s not valid for a writer.

When we write, two important aspects frequently aren’t given enough attention: context and care.

Lack of context is a flaw chronic in every kind of writing, from newspaper articles to novels.

For instance, just today I read an article about a woman who’s head of a respected think tank and who has possibly misled everyone about whether she has a Ph.D. Fascinating stuff. But the article never asks if her claiming to have the Ph.D. has had an impact on her success. For instance, it cites grants she’s gotten for the institution, but never asked those awarding the grants if her credentials made a difference.

Context. The article presented a fact, but never explored how relevant that fact was.

But I digress. Back to adjectives. If you are using “colored” to say something about a time, place or the person using the word, your writing must be skilled enough to make that context clear to the reader.

A reader can’t read your mind, only what you put on paper. If the reader doesn’t get what you’re saying, your words will be lost. Or worse.

In the newspaper industry, editors work every day (not always successfully) to make sure adjectives that promote prejudice or stereotypes are struck from copy.

The lead of a story shouldn’t be “a black man robbed Cumberland Farms” any more than someone would write “a white man robbed Cumberland Farms.” If police are looking for the robber, his description will appear later in the story. Pointing out his race in the lead gives the reader an impression that the writer surely doesn’t intend, both about himself and about race in general.

Another adjective I frequently strike from stories and headlines is “elderly.” If there’s reason to point out the person is elderly  — “Phone Scam Preys on the Elderly” — that’s one thing. But usually it’s something like “Elderly Pedestrian Hit by Car.”

The person’s age will come out at some point — if the writer is doing his job it will be early — in the story. Using it as an adjective when it’s not needed is gratuitous and lazy.  Don’t even get me started on “female doctor” and “female driver.”

Fiction writers, as well as writers of memoir, have more leeway. They are telling a story, not in the linear style of a news story, but creatively. While some writers believe that leeway gets them off the hook, it actually makes context more important. The more creative the writing is, the more the point must be made clear.

There’s a lot more to context than I could cover here.  The overlying point is that it is about understanding the topic and what you’re trying to say as a writer and working hard to make sure what’s being said is what’s meant.

Which brings us to care.

Care about what words you choose. Take care in how you use them.

Words shouldn’t be chosen casually and thrown down on the page like feed for chickens.

A word you may not have thought about at all may have a huge impact on what you’re saying, or trying to say.

All three of the writers referenced here seem to be thoughtful, smart people. The one who used black so carelessly as an adjective is talented. His book is funny, complex (in a good way), entertaining and as professional as anything you’d find on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. He uses “black”  effectively two other times in the book to illustrate his own anxieties and prejudices. But it’s a big clunker when he refers to the “black nurse.” I couldn’t even tell you what the sentence was about, because that unnecessary adjective was so distracting.

Reading 50 self-published memoirs in three months is a huge reminder that writing is hard work. Having a laptop and knowing how to type doesn’t make a person a writer.  Some people have a natural talent while others struggle. One thing is true for the talented, the strugglers and all of us in between: writing is a powerful tool that must be given full attention to be used effectively.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
This entry was posted in Craft, Editing, Maureen Milliken, Of Interest, Opinion, Writers, Writing, Writing lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Don’t write a clunker: Context and care vital, but often overlooked

  1. Some excellent points here! Thoughtfulness and empathy are critical, along with rigorous editing. I’m working on a period mystery (1906) which does involve a lot of racial stuff and I’m thinking very hard about how I describe and refer to the characters–which means sometimes needing to use terms I’d be very uncomfortable with in a contemporary setting (even so, I can’t bring myself to use the “N” word, even where the circumstances seem to call for one character to use it in reference to another). I would challenge one statement above: “Some people have a natural talent while others struggle.” I’d like to think it’s possible for both to be true–otherwise my current struggles with my first sequel are going to lead me to a very uncomfortable conclusion about my own talents…:-)

  2. marymtf says:

    ‘A reader can’t read your mind, only what you put on paper.’ That’s the sentence that stood out for me. I’ve often thought so myself, though not in the context of your article. Probably why it’s a good reason to distance yourself from your finished work before re=reading. Enjoyed your post.

  3. Pingback: Good news | Pen, Ink, and Crimes

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