I am not a bracket. (Or, how not to be an accidentally exclusionary writer.)
So I’m about to read a book about a sport I like, about an athlete I admire.
The book is a rock climbing memoir, and it’s co-written by the athlete and by a professional writer/editor.
At the beginning of the book, the sport of free soloing (a style of climbing), is described as: “a man (or woman), with only rock shoes on his feet and chalk on his fingertips for better purchase, against the cliff.”
Notice that “woman” is in brackets.
Now this curious grammatical choice has nothing to do with women’s participation in the sport of climbing — which is significant — and has everything to do with the inherent assumptions of the editor/author.
Brackets suggest an afterthought. A rarity. An exception to the rule.
Suddenly, I feel excluded. Talked down to. Omitted.
This language and punctuation says: This book is not for me. It is for men. For male climbers.
I feel like putting it down. No, I feel like throwing it off the next cliff I climb.
And I’m only on page 8.
Think I’m over-reacting? This tiny little grammatical choice (not to mention the use of “he” and “his” rather than the gender neutral “they”) speaks volumes.
So here’s the lesson. For all writers and editors, whether you’re professional or not: do not underestimate the effect of choices like this on your reader.
I am not obsessive about grammar. I encourage people to write rather than worrying about getting it perfect. I encourage people to focus on clarity and communication rather than grammatical nuances.
But this, right here, is when grammar (and punctuation and word choice) matters. When you’re accidentally cutting people out.
If this is something you care about — i.e. you don’t want your writing to be exclusive and you do want it to engage all readers — work with an editor who is attuned to these kinds of things. They don’t have to be a professional; they can be a friend or colleague who just really ‘gets it’.
Preferably, work with someone from a different perspective than you, whether that’s a different gender, industry, age, ethnicity, life experience, etc. They can help you see your work in a different light.
Tell them that you want help identifying and tempering your own bias. Invite them to challenge you. Then be willing to be challenged, to question your assumptions about who you’re writing for and what their perspective will be.
And most of all, never treat a human being like a bracket.