I’ve been meaning to work on my writing for while now, so stumbling on this high recommendation of William Zinsser’s guide to writing non-fiction gave me the push to actually find time and – you know – improve my writing. Zinsser’s guide which is titled ‘On Writing Well’ is an absolute pleasure to read and full of great writing anecdotes and practical advice. The only tiny, little problem is that is appears to be full of sexist examples and language.
It may be that I’m not used to reading books published in 1976 but I was quite perplexed at the lack of gender neutrality in his writing. After a while, my eyes and brain seemed to ignore his constant referral to the male species as a sort of typing error or an effort on the author’s behalf to remain consistent. However the following paragraph where he talks of a male dentist and then a female air stewardess stood out for its gender bias (and assumptions about the need to reproduce):
“Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he were asking one of his own children he would say, “Does it hurt?” He would, in short, be himself. By using a more pompous phrase in his professional role he not only sounds more important; he blunts the painful truth. It is the language of the airline stewardess demonstrating the oxygen mask that will drop down if the plane should somehow run out of air. “In the extremely unlikely possibility that the aircraft should experience such an eventuality,” she begins – a phrase so oxygen-depriving in itself that we are prepared for any disaster, and even gasping death should lose its sting.”(p.14)
All the writers Zinsser quotes in the first half of the book (which is where I am up to) are men: Roosevelt, Walden, Orwell, E.B.White, Thomas Paine, Norman Mauler, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe. I know there is an updated version of the guide so it would be interesting to see if these examples and quotes have been varied a little and edited to be more gender fair/neutral.
Looking through the rest of the first half of the book, I found more examples of gender bias:
“As I said earlier, the average writer sets out to commit an act of literature. He thinks that his article must be of a certain length or it won’t seem important. He thinks how august it will look in print. He think of all the people who will read it. He thinks that it must have the solid weight of authority. He thinks that its style must dazzle…” (p.20)
“I want a professor with a passion with his subject to tell me why it fascinates him.” [Original emphasis] (p.21)
“Whatever your age, be yourself when you write. Many old men still write with the zest that they had in the their late twenties or early thirties; obviously their ideas are still young. Other old writers ramble and repeat themselves; their style is the tip-off they have turned into redundant bores.” (p.23-24)
There is subtle irony to his chastisement of older writers with old ideas as although age is clearly not an issue for him, gender appears to be.
S is for…Sexism
I also noticed a similar issue when trying to pick up shorthand (which is a system used by journalists and typists for writing words using abbreviated or shortened forms). For example, most of the alphabet letter have a word linked to them – A could also mean ‘able to’, B was ‘be’ and V ‘very’ – but whilst H could be short for ‘He’, S was short for…. South. That’s right ‘south’. I mean who even uses the word south often enough for it to be useful in shorthand? Sexist people apparently.
Jess McCabe in the F-Word picked up on another problem in her shorthand book: “Without fail, every professional character that appears in the book is a man. Every tradesperson is a man. The odd customer gets to be a woman. But apart from that, the only female ‘characters’ are the “girls” doing menial office jobs that are assumed to be the sole audience of the book.”