One of the toughest things about editing is cleaning up the manuscript while preserving the author’s voice, and in the developmental stage, advising on the story to improve it without falling into the trap of changing it to suit your personal story preferences.

There are many potential pitfalls to this process, and I know for me it has been a constant struggle to strike a balance between my clients’ work and my feminist convictions. I’ve never had to deal with explicit (and uncondemned) sexism in a manuscript, but what I have sometimes seen is unintentional sexism in the form of unexamined tropes and turns of phrase, and occasionally, what’s known as “enlightened sexism.”

None of the authors I’ve worked with intend to be sexist. But…when they recreate scenes in which men dominate the dialogue or come up with all the solutions (and have chosen their characters’ genders in such a way as to make this plausible), or relationships in which women are all mood swings and men are all jealousy or possessiveness. When a man gratuitously “once-overs” a woman he’s attracted to and explicitly admires tits and ass while the woman who’s attracted to him admires his smile and eyes. When a female character constantly questions herself, her actions, her looks, but none of the other, usually male, characters have the same struggle for self-worth.

Let’s just say that intent has little bearing on interpretation, especially for a reader who may never even meet, let alone get to know, the author of a book.

[Disclaimer #1: I believe in variety. For the purpose of this post, I’ll simply say there is no one “right” or “most feminist” way to be a woman, though I would say there are some benchmarks.] The issue I face, as a feminist editor, is that I am not seeing a lot of variety among female characters, particularly in certain genres and categories. What I see are regurgitated descriptions and ideas that convey the same old tired notions without even meaning to, and it’s lazy. It’s lazy writing. I know that’s hard to hear, but a writer may spend years on a manuscript, and if they’re not making clear decisions about every single word, they’re still leaving a lot on the table–not all of it pleasant.

[Disclaimer #2: more and more authors are giving their female characters due care and consideration and fleshing women who could easily be stereotypes into fully realized characters, and I am totally aware of and grateful for that, so please don’t tell me #notallauthors. Disclaimer #2.5: to my past and current clients, unless this is something we’ve talked about together, I’m not talking about you.]

My rule of thumb for writing is to question everything. Why is my character saying that? Why are they thinking/feeling/doing that? What is being conveyed here, really, truly, below the surface being conveyed? Asking these questions is often all it takes to diffuse the dialogue or description that is problematic, and get to a truer representation of what the character is going through at that moment. [Disclaimer #3: I struggle with this as an author as well, and can only do my best to tailor all my writing to the unique characters I strive to create.]

Back to editing while feminist. As a feminist, I want to challenge the kinds of unexamined assumptions about women (and others) that permeate our media, including the books we write. As an editor, my first duty is to the author’s story. There’s a lot that I don’t comment on, because if I did, I’d be crossing a line from serving the story to serving my story expectations–and in the past, there have been authors who still took issue with the comments I did think were worth leaving.

As always, the best I as a developmental editor can do is provoke deeper thought in the author about what they’re trying to accomplish with their story, and whether they’re succeeding, and how they can achieve those goals.

In our wonderfully thoughtful and aware internet writing community, I’m sure there are other editors who wrestle with this and authors who perhaps have faced comments like these. Let’s discuss and share strategies in the comments!