Guest blog: Tone policing

As writers, how long do we spend, any of us, second-guessing what an imagined reader, our imagined audience, will think of our words? There’s writer’s paranoia – do my words work, will anyone like them, can I do this – the classic that leads to over (or under) writing sex scenes (what would my parents think?) Then there’s a whole other layer that queer writers face.

Queer writer’s paranoia

More writerly paranoia you say? More? Oh yes, more. There’s a logic behind it though, or at least reasons. Some are to do with the industry, big picture things, but there’s a more fundamental creative brake I see in my writing and the words people present for editing, mentoring, at workshops. Experience.

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Photo by Joey Theswampboi on

So, let me take you on a night out. There’s too much gin for there to be words, though I will come to write of the night later, it’s a visceral night, a night of performers, glitter and, perhaps, a little excess. The dancefloor is full, the stairway is a swirling current of ascending and descending smokers. Everywhere, from bar to stage, there are friends, acquaintances, recognition in mirrors and dry ice. Hedonistic, unfiltered. Queer. The last queer night in town, an elegiac, unfiltered, farewell.

Why is that relevant? Well, the thing that night that came up repeatedly as we reflected in corners of its imminent demise was why we valued it. We didn’t tone police ourselves, didn’t worry about our presentation or partner or think about who was near, we just were… Now, whether you’re provocative and ramp things up or if you seek to fade into the background, we are always aware, to some extent, daily in every ordinary interaction, without thinking, of this second-nature response to the possibility of negative reaction. Why would our writing be different?


I know I have policed myself. I’ve edited out the messy bits, the sexy bits. The messy-sexy bits behind Kwik Fit. The queer bits. I’ve created gay characters who are gay but somehow chaste, and I think, how? Why? Why did that happen? How did they become so beige between imagination and page? I was policing my words, bleaching them of a little colour, brushing the glitter beneath the keyboard, turning away so every tryst was chaste. Why? Other – feared and imaginary – people. In my head, oh, the things that were happening… On the page – another coffee.

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Photo by Lisa Fotios on

Going to a queer writing workshop really helped me in confronting this. I did one recently organised by Colchester Pride with the poet James McDermott leading it. We worked on breaking the rules, on queering the writing, on breaking free of the expectations of what poetry, of what our words should be. To stop worrying about the imposition of form, structure, content, after all, who – what – has imposed those concepts? That’s not to say any collection of words is poetic, but it is useful in reflecting on how we squash ourselves into linguistic boxes. It’s made me more aware of the rules I’m breaking, more reflective of why I’m choosing not to perform this poem, and made my narrative voice the focus of my writing rather than conjuring up a phantom reader.

Words flowing onto the page

So, there you are, that sentence is starting to flow, the words are flooding from your fingers, there’s a flooding cataract of ideas spilling onto the page, when, ahh! What if my mum reads this? You stop. Make a coffee. Freak out a little. Retire to Twitter. Return later, splash the page with euphemisms and elaborate metaphors. Yes, Mum, it’s sex, but it’s literary sex. Cup of tea?

As a queer writer, there are so many metaphorical mums out there. The one-day reader, prospective publishers, your editor… What will they think? I should tone that down, soften the edges of that and make it a little more palatable. After all, what would a straight person think? What? A straight person? Yes, because we carry them in our heads as silent critics, arbiters of the popular, successful or publishable.

It’s taken me a long time, but that whispering critic of conventions is less imposing for me now.

Breaking the mould

As a writer I want to break things. Binaries mainly (although that’s not just in my writing). But also conventions, roles and expectations. I’m writing a queer novel with nine main characters, without a clear love interest, with an eighty-five-year-old protagonist. Sex. Lots of that. Different approaches to style depending on the character, omniscient (except where it’s not), and with lots of swearing – because really, who doesn’t? I worry permanently about whether this is too niche, but it’s my story, one that’s taken a lot to develop, and I’m in love with all those beautiful messy queers sprawling their lives across my pages. That is the key thing.

Similarly, I’ve learnt not to self-police in performance. I used to look at my audience and think, oh dear, I won’t do that poem today. Yet, when I did, because those are my most authentic words, that poem is exactly the one gaining the strongest reaction – from all parts of the audience.

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Free yourself

In workshops, as with writers who trust me with their manuscripts, what I’m always keen to see and encourage is a clear and honest voice. If you’re self-editing to fit in, it’s always so apparent, there’s a limiter on the writing, it can’t breathe. That’s true regardless of your identity, but I see it so often with queer writers especially. Think carefully, when are you able to express yourself best? When you’re being circumspect in a formal setting or when you’re in a comfortable conversation? That’s where your best writing needs to be, in comfortable dialogue, your narrative voice curled up in an intense exclusive tête-à- tête with your reader. To do that you need to free yourself from the tone police.

I say, and this is as a reader, writer, editor and performer: make it queer! Break those walls. Ignore what ought to be, fill your writing with a really strong voice and your writing will be so much more powerfully resonant for it – and have a bigger audience too – because stifling your voice never leads to better writing. I’m going to write about chaos, joy and shagging at three a.m. and perform poems about ill-advised moments because that’s where my art takes me – and what, actually, my audience loves.

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Editor and proofreader specialising in LGBTQ+ writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

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