Editing For Inclusion

By John Gilstrap

I recently finished Lethal Prey, the latest edition in my Jonathan Grave thriller series (July, 2022), and as a subscriber to Microsoft Office 365, I noticed a function for the first time during my first-round edit of the manuscript. If you click on the Review button, and then on the Editor button, you can open up a world of useful editing functions. I am the king of typos, so it’s wonderful to be able to search by spelling errors, those underlined-in-red words that I never see because I watch my hands when I type.

You can also search by grammatical errors, and by “clarity” errors. It’s a pretty useful function, and it gives you the opportunity to add words like “gotta” and “friggin'” into the dictionary so the program learns.

This time around, though, I noticed a new function. I can search for “inclusivity errors.” This is, after all, 2021, which looks more and more like George Orwell’s version of 1984.

By way of background, I recently dealt with a Facebook PM exchange wherein a distressed reader complained that I had not included trigger warnings in by latest book. When I told her that the title Stealth Attack, combined with a cover image of a bullet and gobs of barbed wire, should have carried that water, she maintained that such was not enough.

Perhaps the gods are telling me that the time to retire is approaching.

Anyway, back to inclusivity. Here are the suggested changes, presented in the order they appear in my manuscript:

Cocky should be overconfident. I confess this one made me laugh. It had never occurred to me that the root of “cocky” was actually a root . . . Okay, did you hear the filters fall into place? My wife isn’t sitting next to me, but if she were, I’d have just been pinched.

Countrymen is bad. Compatriots is better.

Gunmen really should be shooters. Is this really a point of friction?

Alderman is exclusionary. It should be council member. Except, you know, the character is an alderman.

Middlemen is a triggering word, apparently. I should go with intermediaries or go-betweens. But for the fact that this particular bit occurs in dialogue, I don’t have a lot of argument with it. I’m just not sure it’s worth a highlight.

Manned. Well, crap. I have sinned. Staffed is the Microsoft-approved alternative. “Staff the ramparts, humans!”

Man of the house should be head of the household.

You guys should be shortened to you. But for the fact that the “you guys” are both guys, this might have some merit.

In a description of a topographical map in which I describe contour lines as indicating elevations and tiny dots indicating manmade structures, Microsoft cautions me to choose between manufactured or synthetic as the better alternative.

Bottom line: I didn’t make any of these changes. That said, I’ve mentioned before that I spend a fair amount of time mentoring new writers on Facebook’s Fiction Writing group, and people are taking this stuff seriously. “People with prostates” and “people with ovaries” are a growing trend to describe what we used to call men and women.

Here’s my question to the TKZ family who is no doubt terrified to go on the record for an issue like this: Is all of this a passing fad, or is it going to stick?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

52 thoughts on “Editing For Inclusion

  1. Inclusivity errors? Oh, The Humanity! I am surprised that “manufactured” slipped by Microsoft. Maybe I should send MS an eperson about it.

    I think that this will eventually go the way of New Math. It’s going to take a while, however. I probably won’t live to see it.

    John, please don’t retire because of your exchange with Ophelia. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.

  2. I think the changes are here to stay and I am all for it. However, the tricky part is fictional characters need to speak in a manner that reflects their time period.

    And the current trend for inclusionary language change is balanced out by the increased usage of words, deemed unspeakable 30-40 years ago, into the vocabulary of characters in general audience TV shows and movies, and by schoolchildren. My father was a bootlegger and afterwards a longshoreman for the rest of his working life. I never heard him swear even once. Yet, I feel to sprinkle a bit of “bad language” into my novels occasionally.

  3. First, one of the primary reasons I read mostly—not exclusively—but mostly decades old pulp fiction is that you’ll find no trace of PC BS. Many big name authors crowbar “inclusive” items into their work. On page 1 of The Outsider, Stephen King mentions “Black Lives Matter,” and it had zero to do with the story. It’s not necessarily that I object to his politics, it’s that it breaks the fourth wall and takes me out of the story. Life is hard enough, I’d like to be entertained.

    Second, I pray and hope and truly believe it will pass. My reasoning is most real people I know, all across the political map, dislike it. It’s a small, vocal minority who attempts to enforce this. Sadly, giant corporations are part of the minority because it’s a cheap way to virtue signal.

  4. Oh, John, these are important issues, because of the underlying insanity that produces them. We’re not supposed to discuss politics here, so let me simply say that the headlines this morning indicate that we are taking a step back from insanity.

    And here’s another example that I love. It’s not “woman,” it’s “menstruating person.” So what does that poor woman become when she goes through menopause?

    Hang in there, John. Don’t change your writing. And when you’re editing, ignore that 1984 button.

    And have a great day!

  5. I’m going to have to look at this for the current WIP, just out of curiosity. What will Word say about referring to cowboys? But overall, I think this is OTT craziness. I recall my high school English teacher (and we’re talking early 60s here, when the women’s rights movement was getting underway) saying that calling a female congress person a congresswoman was simply proper grammar.

    I had a trans character in a recent book, and I asked a trans acquaintance how to handle references to he/she, etc. I went with what she said.
    Tony Hillerman asked a group of Native Americans what they liked to be called/how they referred to themselves. They said “Indians.” But that was many years ago.
    I’m confident that no matter what Word tells me, I’m leaving those sorts of things alone. I had enough trouble dealing with cattle, cows, heifers, bulls, and steers in this book. My characters are what they are, and they talk the way they talk.

  6. More like it will be evolving over time. My children, 16 and 20, simply try not to use pronouns at all. They are comfortable knowing your pronouns and use the appropriate ones.

    Guys is problematic. Most people use it generically no matter the gender of the group. A suitable alternative really isn’t out there yet.

  7. Like Joe, I was surprised MS didn’t suggest replacing “manufacture.” “Itufacture” is one possibility. Kidding, of course.

    Years ago, my sister-in-law said she was going to stop using the word “person” because “son” is a masculine designation. She said the world should begin using “perit” instead. Of course, that was back when people still had a sense of humor and weren’t ready to appear (and it’s ALL appearances) “offended” every time a gnat passes gas in the Sahara.

    As for those who believe themselves important enough to force their opinions and desires on everyone else, I don’t need them as readers. Full stop.

    I feel sorry for your critic. Never in her life will she actually enjoy a story, printed or presented in video or audio. She’ll sit, pen in hand, ready to note each word, phrase and image that she self-righteously believes is not politically correct. How very starved for attention she must be, to believe a complete stranger actually cares what she thinks.

    No, the PC nonsense isn’t here to stay. Eventually we’ll get back to resolving real problems that make an actual difference in society. And who knows? Maybe the rest of the world will even stop laughing at us.

  8. John,
    Some of those recommendations are actually decades old: manned for instance. I usually use staffed.
    As a woman who was a journalist using AP style, and then a professor who taught young journalists to use AP style? My advice is simple: Words matter. Language evolves.
    AP style was always slow to change; a lot of its membership are southern newspapers. And us PNW folks usually changed first. So by the time the change was in the stylebook it was old news. And inclusive language is now an accepted part of the stylebook.
    (I remember the battles over Ms. and chairman/chairwoman — I ran to fill the chairmanship, but I never actually get it do I? I’m a chairwoman…. That’s changed too, now.)
    So, I don’t accept all of Word’s grammar recommendations, and I wouldn’t accept all of these either. But they are worth considering, just as the rest of Word’s grammar ideas are. (A lot of bad ones there….) But I’m not offended that the recommendations are there either.
    BTW, I still run on AP style, even now, writing fiction. With reporter protagonists, why not? But most style guides include inclusive language recommendations.

    • L.J.,

      I agree that language evolves. Webster just added “amiright” to its dictionary–am I right? And as a writer, I choose the words I want to use, irrespective of any style guide. (Note previous posts, in which I confess that I deeply do not understand commas.)

      I’m old enough to claim my right to declare some of said changes to be silly.

  9. I guess I’m a sinner, too, John, but I’m not changing my series characters. Their characterization is well-established and they are who they are. People with ovaries and people with prostrates? Oh, dear Lord. Is that what we’re reduced to? I am all for inclusivity, and I certainly would never intentionally disrespect anyone, but we are talkin’ about fiction and fictional characters. Recently, a friend told me s/he is no longer acceptable because it only includes two genders (are there more than two now?). The acceptable term is the singular “they.”

  10. For fiction writers, turn most AI suggestions into gold by bagging and selling as fertilizer. You’ll make a fortune!

  11. While the language police are busy scrubbing, they should address two more offensive, sexist terms: huMAN and perSON. I suggest “hu-creatures” and “a singular people.”

    Oh, wait, what about those who, instead of “he” or “she”, refer to their child as “they”? Can “a singular people” also be a “they”?

    I don’t have a prostate or ovaries nor am I menstruating. That’s probably TMI but it leads me to wonder–since there is no correct noun to describe me, am I nonexistent?

  12. Not sure anyone who needs that kind of attention to detail in their purchases would want to read my books? However, this is another reason I need a Literary Agent – or team around me to help understand the issues.

    I’m not sure it will last? But we could be wrong. However, Political Correctness did entered the workplace in the late 80’s and stayed. Maybe that’s our comparison to think about here.

    I also think we might be defining ourselves as authors as to how we write? Maybe needing to put it in our bios as either Conservative or Liberal. I can see that being a necessary description to match these expectations, that might be a requirement to guide people with their purchase.

  13. Hi, John. Love the barb wire and bullet cover for Stealth Attack. I can see why the reader got confused and thought your book was a ROM Com. 🙂 And I really enjoyed this column. I’m with you on all this inclusion stuff. Kind of ridiculous in most cases when writing or reading fiction, if you ask me. By the way, I’d love to look into the Facebook writers group you mentioned. How can I find it?

  14. These changes are here to stay, and I am also one of those who welcomes them. I think inclusivity matters in writing as it does in society. Making the linguistic default more neutral includes more folks.

    That said, I don’t see anything wrong with alderman or alderwoman, same for councilman or council woman, for instance. if a character identifies as non-binary, and they are the POV, then they might well describe the position as councilor or council person. In fiction, as has been discussed to good effect here in the past, POV matters, and language choice for POV can reflect that POV’s outlook and mindset 🙂

  15. Please don’t retire, John. Common sense is in short supply as it is.

    I believe this is a passing fad. It reminds me of the term “in the weeds” which I understand means focusing on esoteric details so much that you miss the bigger picture. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “man” can be used to denote an adult male or simply an individual human.

  16. I fear it’s going to stick, and get worse. 🙁

    Just to lay myself out there (and I feel I’m taking my life in my hands) . . . I don’t have enough time left to me topside to get offended by so much of the stuff that offends other people.

    There are so many “importanter” issues to attack. “You guys”? I heard something about somebody actually apologizing for say that. I shook my head and went outside to ponder the falling leaves. I remembered that when my kids were tots, I spent a lot of time teaching them not to take everything personally. I think a good dose of that needs to be in a spray bottle and sold at Walmart.

    When I read a story, I want authenticity. Real dialogue, the way real people talk to each other. Real people will probably keep talking the way real people talk. It’s only those so-called “social media influencers” (whatever that is) who pick everything apart.

    Before too much longer, my dear Dad’s favorite phrase from my childhood will go the way of the dodo.

    When we dissembled in front of him, he’d sit us down and say, “Let’s just call a spade a spade . . .”

    Let’s see: Let’s just call a spade a tiny green shovel with a pointy tip and a fat, cushy handle that we can dig dandelions with . . .

    Just doesn’t have the same ring, like gunmen, cocky, manmade, you guys, middlemen . . . I could go on. I’d better quit before the word police show up. 🙂

    Hey John, have a great Wednesday, and thanks for letting me rant . . . er, I mean share my opinion.

    • For a writer’s voice to resonate, it must be true to the writer. Twenty-five years ago, when my first novel was about to drop, I took the one writer who gave me early advice out to dinner in a very nice restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s one of those old-money places where people speak in hushed tones and eat baked Alaska for dessert.

      The writer in question was then and is now a huge bestseller, whose violence and sex are *very* graphic. I asked him if it was uncomfortable facing his neighbors after that. He took a pull on his wine and said, very loudly, “John, f**k your neighbors! Let ’em write their own GD book.”

      I heard forks dropping after that.

  17. I wrote what I wanted to write in my fiction because fiction should be a bit uncomfortable. I’ve always been more careful in my nonfiction not to step on too many new cultural toes, not because I give a crap, but I don’t want readers to get hung up on that and miss what I am talking about.

    In the Reddit writer question area, many of the newer writers aren’t asking about craft but how to avoid the traps of culural appropriation and writing “the other.” “The other” is anyone who isn’t you or white/straight/skinny/etc. This new world of triggers, race and gender politics, and hypersensitivity is exhausting, and a writer just can’t win. Add in the cancel culture police, and I do not envy the next generation of writers.

  18. So many interesting points here. I would not cleanse my characters’ dialogue. That road leads to fakery. (What would I do without Mark Twain?) That said, there are cases where gender clarification, and sensitivity, are called for. It’s up to the writer to decide. The writer is boss; reminds me of what my youngest said to me one day long ago–“You’re not the boss of me.” He had that right.

  19. I’m happy to report that Libre Office Writer does not incorporate any of the “inclusion” felgercarb.

    My sister was a draftsman. She made it very clear that she was a draftsman and not a draftsperson, a word which involved spraying spittle ala Daffy Duck.

    I have used “delver” and “digger” and “geovolvometer” instead of “spade.”

    But if this PC trend continues, all literature and art are dead, dead, dead, from Spillane to Shakespeare, from Klimt to Klee. Books that will offend no one are merely empty pages, books whose sterile content has been pre-censored, consigned to Dr. Goebbels’ bonfire before they’re even printed.

    • It’s a fantastic place to visit, T.T.T.
      I did a brief stint in Guest Relations at a theme park in Orlando, and one guest filed a complaint that during an interactive presentation, the person leading the act referred to people in the audience as “guys” and she was most offended because she was not a “guy.”

  20. Question for Mr. Gilstrap:
    I was unaware of this feature, and gave it a try on a chapter from my WIP. In the Editor section, there’s a choice of Formal, Professional, and Casual. Did you select casual?

  21. John, I thought you wuz pullin’ m’ peepee with the MS inclusivity feature, so I went and checked. Sure enough, it’s there, and it doesn’t surprise me one whit. I worked for government agencies since the 1970s, and I watched the PC movement grow and grow and grow to where it’s nearly impossible to voice your true feelings for fear of getting your peepee whacked with the PC peepee whacking stick. By the way, I can say peepee because it’s gender neutral.

  22. Oh good grief. Thank you for not making those changes. I don’t know whether it’s a fad or not but I won’t be participating in it, one way or the other.

  23. I thought that ‘cocky’ referred to roosters/cockerels, with the way they strut around like they own the planet, or at least the meal-worms thereon. Apparently, my mind is insufficiently dirty, which is something of a shock to me.

    • There’s a phrase in Brit-English, which I don’t read/hear so much now, “Cock of the walk,” which expresses the meaning you give, or a dandy and/or overconfident person. So, yes, cocky comes from cockerel.

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