designer, writer, indoor enthusiast

The Challenge of Writing Inclusively


Do the Legwork

Last week, I attended the final session of a fabulous online class from the Loft Literary Center: Writing Difference. Taught by Angela Ajayi, the class focused on the craft and mindset of writing stories with characters and cultures that are different from the author’s own experience. It covered a broad range of differences including race, gender, age, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, and sexual identity. There was a big focus on characterization throughout the class, on how authors can convincingly write characters who are different from themselves. Not just convincingly, but responsibly.

I’ve made a personal commitment to write inclusive stories, stories where the range of human differences are celebrated and accepted, where an individual’s collection of differences is just a part of them, it doesn’t define them. As an example of what I’m talking about, I’m inspired by stories like Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series.

But as a new writer, and a privileged white heterocis male writer to boot, I’m aware how fraught this area is. I worry about cultural appropriation, about whitewashing the experience of others, about how easy (and wrong) it is to step into a savior role. As readers, we often question an author’s motives, we look into their background to see if they have earned the right to tell a particular story.

To be honest, the idea of writing inclusively scares me. It’s hard to imagine something worse than insulting or desecrating someone’s culture or identity. But what’s the alternative? Should I just accept that I will never fully understand the oppression and exploitation of others, and should therefore ignore or gloss over it? That doesn’t seem right or helpful either.

That’s why this class was so great — it was an opportunity to engage with this dialogue about inclusivity and difference as it relates to the craft of writing, to read the opinions and published stories of writers who are leading these conversations, and to learn strategies and tactics for writing difference. The class included a workshop component, with exercises that focused on writing across differences as well as our commonalities, and an opportunity to submit an extended piece of writing for feedback from Angela and the class participants.

Angela shared lots of great info about combatting stereotypes, appropriate and authentic characterization, and avoiding the treatment of any culture as a monolith. The Iceberg Concept of Culture was particularly helpful, though Angela repeatedly emphasized that culture is not as static as this model might suggest — it’s far more dynamic and nuanced. 

Image credit: SOPTV ED, 2017

Two Key Takeaways

Beyond the helpful information and discussion, there were a couple really big takeaways for me. 

The first: Do the legwork. That’s the phrase that sticks with me. One of my favorite bits of wisdom from the class: “Empathy is not enough, you can’t ‘good person’ your way into good writing.” You have to do deep research, beyond what’s depicted in pop culture, and gain enough knowledge of a group or community to realistically represent one of them in a story. Read books by the other community, not about the other community. And get proximate — step outside your cultural comfort zone, talk to community members, get to know them, ideally live in the culture or group you’re trying to represent for an extended period of time.

The other takeaway for me was how important it is to make the effort, to accept the inherent risks in writing inclusively. This area is hard, it’s fraught with competing points of view. An author is very likely to get it wrong, but we have to try. It’s a way to build empathy for one another. If we don’t attempt to understand and write from other cultures’ experiences, as well as deal with the realities of tensions between cultures, then we’re just segregating ourselves. Writing responsibly across our cultural divides helps us focus on characters and people as individuals, and on the shared traits and experiences across humanity.

The Experience

As a super new writer, the feedback portion was challenging. I was really nervous about sharing my story, since it hit on some cultural traits of my fellow classmates. But that’s the point — to confront my own biases and ignorance, try to overcome them, and get honest feedback about where I’ve succeeded and failed. Angela was great about feedback, she seems very practiced in this area. My classmates were generous too. My piece, a first draft of a story set in the world I’ve been working on, definitely had some major issues. But one of my classmates offered some deeper resources for me to learn more. And I’ll try to do better next time, to do the legwork. 🙂

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have taken this class, it clarified how to incorporate difference into my own writing. I’ve accepted that there are some stories that are not mine to tell. But that doesn’t mean I can’t write inclusive characters and stories. I’ve also accepted that there will always be more to learn, and I have a long way to go before I do this well.

Thanks to Angela, and my thoughtful classmates, I have a better understanding of how to approach writing difference, along with a set of techniques and resources I will reference for years to come as I work on my craft of writing. 


This is a set of resources shared by Angela, as well as some classmates. Parking these here for myself, as well as anyone else who might find value in them.

designer, writer, indoor enthusiast


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