Six Sources of Censorship to Terrify You

Recently, a slew of articles have asked if sensitivity readers act as a form of censorship.* For those not familiar with the term, sensitivity readers are consultants who advise authors about whether a story has offensive or harmful content. If an able-bodied author has a story about a disabled character, the author might hire a sensitivity reader who specializes in ableism.

At this point, you’re probably asking how sensitivity readers could possibly enforce censorship, since censorship is traditionally defined as preventing someone’s free expression, and sensitivity readers only offer advice the author paid for. What you don’t understand is that anything that might influence your writing in any way is censorship of the worst kind. Your work as an author is like unto a sacred cow, and anything that might change it is to be feared. Now that you’re properly terrified of sensitivity readers, here are six more sources of censorship that all authors must be aware of.

1. Editors

This first one should be obvious, really. It’s all in the name. What is an edit if not a change? And remember, any change to your work, no matter how voluntary, is censorship. Copy editors are the first great offenders, always mucking about with your sentences in the name of “clear communication” and “readability.” Who needs that? See, thiss pert wasn’t poppy edited at awl. The entire profession is clearly just an excuse to censor your art.

Developmental editors are even worse. They don’t content themselves with censoring your typos and nigh-unreadable sentences. Oh no, dev editors go straight for the jugular, changing the very heart of your story. You might have written a groundbreaking manuscript about the pointlessness of human storytelling, but then some dev editor goes in and adds a plot, of all the nerve. Or at least, they’ll recommend that you add a plot, which, as we’ve already established, is the same thing!

Both kinds of editors need to understand that when you pay for editing services, you don’t want them to censor you by suggesting changes. What you’re after is an expensive pat on the back.

2. Spell Checkers

Ugh, and I thought editors were bad. At least they have the decency to lurk in their internet caves until someone is foolish enough to summon them up. Spell checkers come at you where you live, flooding your document with squiggly red lines. You might try to ignore them, but they’re always there, watching, judging. Why can’t these evil programs just understand that any supposed typos are actually expressions of your genius?

As if censoring your spelling weren’t enough, spell checkers also have the gall to critique your grammar and word choice. This is based on the outrageous assumption that you might use “to” when you mean “too.” But that’s obviously nonsense, because authors never make mistakes. Every letter and punctuation mark is deliberate, and to suggest otherwise is clear censorship.

Fortunately, there is a solution to the spell check problem: just type your document in Notepad or some other plain text editor. No spell checkers there to worry about. Im duing it write nou, aand noe squiddly read lyne caan stope mye.

3. Other Authors

Do you read books or watch movies? If so, you’ve probably been inspired by them at some point, which feels great. While you’re enjoying your favorite piece of media, a new story idea suddenly bursts into your mind. What you don’t understand is that this “inspiration” is actually an insidious bit of censorship from other authors.

You see, your brain only has room for so many ideas. When you have an idea based on someone else’s work, it overwrites an idea you already had. Trust me, this is science. So by experiencing another author’s story, you are letting them tramp around your brain with a baseball bat, smashing your ideas left and right. Authors wage this psychic warfare on one another to silence all competition in a vicious act of censorship.

The only way to escape this problem is to avoid all other media when you’re writing. In fact, better to avoid all other media in general. You can never be sure when a bit of inspiration will lie dormant in your mind, waiting to strike. Even better, live in a dark box with no access to the outside world, just to be sure.

4. Readers

Some naive storytellers might tell you that pleasing readers is your overall goal, both because it lets you pay the bills and because it’s the best way to communicate your ideas. That’s nonsense, of course. The role of a reader is to passively accept whatever the writer hands down from on high, thankful for genius in any form.

Despite the obvious rightness of this role, many readers insist on having… opinions. They might not want to read your brilliant novel about a thousand-year-old vampire who is uncomfortably into teenaged girls, either because they’ve read a lot of vampire books recently or because they find the romance elements to be exceptionally creepy.

When readers insist on only buying books they like, they bring censorship to a whole new level. They would literally starve you out for writing something they don’t approve of. This is why the true author knows that readers are the enemy and avoids them whenever possible.

5. Cats

What I’m about to say may shock you: your cat is totally evil.* In addition to being furry little monsters who will consume your flesh if you die, cats are some of the most prolific censors in history. It may be hard to accept, but these adorable murder machines have prevented countless words from being committed to paper.

Consider what happens when you sit down to work and your cat wants attention. Does it wait politely for you to finish? Of course it doesn’t. Instead, the feline oppressor will interpose itself between you and your computer, presenting ears that must be scratched or a belly that must be rubbed.* If you give in for even an instant, your cat will bait you with ruthless purrs. It is well known that no human can walk away from a purring cat. Until your cat is satisfied, no words shall be written.

If you somehow managed to resist giving out scratches, your cat will only redouble its efforts, this time through brute force. It will step onto your keyboard, making it impossible for you to express your ideas, the penultimate censor. Oh no, Mythcat has spotted me expressing myself and will have none of that! It’s stepping onto my keyboard and hwuehgfwuhwuhewuhwqfeu.

6. The English Language

Okay, now that Mythcat is satiated, I want you to imagine a form of censorship so terrible that it can render your most beautiful ideas down to an awkward series of sounds and pauses. Welcome to the horror show that is English. In this, the most restrictive form of censorship, you cannot even express yourself without first filtering your statements through an archaic system of verbs and nouns. Most of these words haven’t been changed in centuries, so how can they possibly accommodate the modern writer?

English has no word for the feeling you get when you simultaneously birth a universe from your forehead and drink a really good martini. A clever writer might try to get around this censorship by inventing a new word, like “bugudal.” But because English isn’t instantly updated across all speakers, no one knows what “bugudal” means, and your idea is again censored.

The only way to truly express yourself is to be free of language entirely. Instead, communicate all your stories through direct mind-to-mind contact. Of course, to do this you must implant telepathic receivers in every other human being on Earth, but an apocalyptic war to convert the unbelievers is a small price to pay if it means you never have to deal with pronoun confusion again.

Did that list seem ridiculous? Good. Keep that in mind the next time someone asks if a new service is censorship. Censorship is the suppression of ideas, usually by government agencies. It’s not censorship when someone asks to be treated with respect or gives advice on being respectful.

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  1. SunlessNick

    I think the spellchecker is my favourite.

  2. Tyson Adams

    The best part is that I’m sure I could find a free speech absolutist who wouldn’t regard this as satire. Everything is censorship, well, unless you’re saying it and they actually have to listen for a change.

    • SunlessNick

      In my experience, most people calling themselves free speech absolutists might as well define censorship as “other people get to answer.”

      • Tyson Adams

        Sorry, Sunless Nick, I don’t follow you. Are you saying that the FSA want debate, or that they don’t want debate, or something else?

        My experience is that the biggest voices for free speech also seem to be the ones most ready to call for silencing of people they disagree with. They seem to primarily be about “their speech” being heard.

        • SunlessNick

          Exactly: they can say anything they want because free speech, but when other people get to answer back, that’s censorship and should be stopped.

    • Michael

      I’d call myself a free speech absolutist, but none of these are problems because they’re not censorship. There are some who have very strange ideas of what free speech means though, and yes, they can be quite hypocritical.

  3. Emilio J. D'Alise

    I ran into a bit of sensitivity pushback at a workshop (VP). Specifically, I was writing in the vein of classic PI stories, and the feedback I got back was that the way the character viewed women was offensive. I had the character describe the woman as — and I quote:

    “I looked up, and she was already in the room, five feet from me. I had not heard anything, but then my hearing was set on normal. Still, spooky. Spooky, and pretty. Spooky, pretty, and tall. Had I been standing, she would have cleared my five-foot-eight by at least another half a foot, and that’s with flats on.
    I motioned toward the chair. With fluid grace, she sat.
    I looked at the face because I did not want to look at the form below it. Well, that’s not true. I wanted to look at what supported that face but in a previous life I had been taught not to stare.”

    While this was well outside what I typically write (I rarely describe characters), I didn’t think it as over the top, but every member of the group (three women and two men) flagged that as a problem. Again, this was meant to be along the line of a Phil Marlowe or Mickey Spillane type story. Maybe they’ve never read those books, but that wasn’t the only place.

    There were also references to violence that were objectionable as well as the facility with guns.

    I didn’t push back because the feedback session is not a debate, but it got me wondering what is “safe” to write. Plus, it completely changed the story and character.

    I also wonder about whether bringing it up affects the answer. For example, “what did you think?” might drive a different answer than “were you offended?” In the second case, one has to wonder if there was something they’re supposed to be offended about.

    The thing is, a lot of what is out there right now is dark, has violence and traumatic events driving the plot (which is why I don’t read those books). That seems, to me, a contradiction to what I’m reading in modern writing advice. Movies too are often dark and violent (and seldom kind to women) and are hits.

    But, under the assumption one wants to be mindful of such things, how does one convey aspects of the story if one has to be concerned with unknown triggers for unknown people?

    It may be a moot question because, as I said, dark and disturbing stuff is published. But then, was it run by sensitivity readers? Do publishers worry about such things or just paying lip service? Just wondering.

    • ejdalise

      Oops . . . forgot to subscribe to replies, which this now does.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      If five out of five test readers unanimously point something out as a problem, chances are good a general audience will see it as a problem too. That’s the nature of the craft, we get test readers to spot things that wouldn’t think of. Now, sometimes the problem isn’t exactly what they think it is, not every test reader can always articulate what’s bothering them, but it’s definitely a sign that some revision is needed. Writing for others means taking what they want into account, even if it conflicts with our own sensibilities.

      In general, it’s best to avoid leading questions with test readers. Sometimes you need to get specific info, but you wouldn’t lead with “Do you think my portrayal of artificial gravity is accurate?” for a space opera story, it’s too leading. Some of that is unavoidable when hiring a sensitivity reader, since you want someone with relevant experience, but most working sensitivity readers can be objective none the less.

      The question of how to write dark stories without causing harm is a complex one, but in general the answers can be found in research, test readers, and sensitivity readers in difficult cases. For example, there’s a lot of material out there right now about why graphic rape scenes make a story worse for many women. There are other ways to make the story dark. It’s unlikely we’ll ever cover everything, but the more the better.

    • Xandar The Zenon

      The whole “supported the face” part was worded or phrased strangely. I don’t know, it just came out really awkward. I’d probably add some reasoning that the narrator finds the woman spooky, all the audience knows is that she is tall. So it could come off to some like tall women are spooky if they exceed the height of a man (that only occurred to me after a couple of minutes). And maybe something like “I didn’t dare look away from her face”. It seems strange and kind of creepy that he’s basically restraining himself from checking the woman out.

      • ejdalise

        The spooky part was supposed to refer to the fact she was silent and he hadn’t heard her. By the way, the “man” in that novel is a hybrid (enhanced human) without emotions (other than a strong self-defined sense of duty) and has no romantic or physical interest in any female (or male). That information gets introduced shortly after that scene.

        That said, the scene (and novel) was an attempt at recreating the P.I. novels of old and I obviously did that badly.

        That was my nonowrimo draft and — as I mention below — it was subsequently changed because it went a different direction.

        One thing that was odd, I have a short story with a female private eye who has a male assistant and there are a couple of antagonists that are good-looking (basically, reversing the gender roles). I didn’t get any complaints from similar prose . . . I either got better at writing compliments relating to physical appearance or it’s only a problem when women are objectified.

        Like I said, I rarely describe characters, so that’s not really a problem I encounter in my writing. Supposedly, if I go by my readers, I write women’s POV and women characters well, so at least I got that going for me.

        Thanks for the feedback.

        • N

          I don’t know if you’ll see this since I’m replying so late, but I thought I’d just put this here anyway: it’s the word “pretty” in your description that does it for me. Yes, as you mention later, many men do make first impressions based on physical appearance. But most men are not emotionless enhanced humans. And “pretty” is a very subjective emotional term, often weighed down by, say, colonialism and classism (check out the “make me beautiful” experiment for an example in how varied it can be). Perhaps you could describe physical features (from hair colour to stance) (please not breasts) and leave it up to the emotional reader to decide whether they’re attractive? Or for characters not meant to be human, you could work in a pov characterisation like “pretty by current/conventional standards”?

  4. ejdalise

    I agree with you that a unanimous response is indicative of a problem.

    If you are familiar with VP, you also get the annotated portion of the manuscript from the people in your group. What was interesting is that three of the people had not flagged anything about that passage. The two who had it flagged were first in the verbal feedback round. I was unsure if the others included that particular criticism because they heard it or because that’s what they thought.

    I took it at face value and made changes, and yet none of my pre-VP beta readers mentioned anything about it and they are mostly women (one man).

    Then again, they know me so they might not have seen the passage as a problem because of my other writing (grasping at straws here).

    Understand, I’m not making excuses or seeking validation, but it is a kind of a minefield. Regardless, the finished product deviates from the classic PI genre and (hopefully) avoids any pitfalls.

    Still, while I understand and definitively do not want to cause anyone mental anguish, there’s also the matter of context and intent. I can’t say I learned anything from the feedback because the observations were true to the character and that characterization was not relevant for the whole of the rest of the story. It was a first impression kind of thing. And, some men (many, many men, unfortunately) do notice and often focus on looks.

    I’m happy to fall back to my usual mode of avoiding any but the vaguest of physical descriptions . . . but I get flack for that, as well.

    Thanks for the response.

  5. Deimos

    “When readers insist on only buying books they like, they bring censorship to a whole new level.” This is my favorite line. Disliking something is definitely censorship, right?

    These sorts of people tend to criticize and/or boycott works with “political agendas” (ie, anything diverse or liberal) but heaven forbid anyone criticize anything they write or like and/or refuse to buy them just because the audience member disagrees with the message.

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