When Words Collide

No sense sitting on the offence.

As I progress with my fifth thriller and tie myself in knots with middle class angst about some my working class characters’ attitudes, I’m quite attuned to our propensity to get things wrong. Getting it wrong doesn’t mean you’re necessarily prejudiced or bigoted. You could just be thoughtless. On the one hand, your characters need to speak and act freely to fulfil their literary destiny. You could even argue that the point where you cringe as you’re writing is also the cut-off point where you step outside your boundaries and start to inhabit their perspective. On the other hand, frankly, you may need to think about where you’re being authentic or just trying to be clever. 

I write jokes that occasionally find their way into live performance (and even less occasionally – like almost never – onto radio). It’s so easy to offend a section of the populace without even meaning to. Not just bucking the trend or subverting the form but out and out pissing people off.

And speaking of ‘out’, something really interesting happened recently that illustrates not only how easy it is to get it wrong, but how that misfortune can occur even when it’s a cause that matters dearly to you.

Pride in London went for ‘humour’ in its Love Happens Here marketing for London’s Pride Festival (now running until 9th July). It missed the target by a wide margin and managed to offend the LGBTI community. In particular, the use of the word ‘gay’ as irony (that’s my take on their motive) was subsequently considered misjudged after being interpreted as a pejorative term. 

You can read about it here:


It’s a reminder that words have power. Forget all that ‘sticks and stones’ nonsense. As an example, ask any child or adult who has been bullied and they will be able to vividly recount what was said and how it made them feel. 

We all have a responsibility for what we communicate and how we do it. Writers can and do walk that line between expression and censorship, and sometimes we cross it. It’s our freedom to do that, but we have to accept that others may see that as a step too far. Unlike fiction, life can be messy and remain unresolved. In the above case, there’s an added dimension, which is the impact on other people who might go on to use the words.

Have any writers out there ever misread the mood with a piece of writing? And if so how did you recover the situation, or did you let it stand?


Author of the Spy Chaser series, which so far has only managed to offend a few readers.*

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

US: https://www.amazon.com/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

* Swearing, a shower scene, violence, and – bizarrely – a lead character expressing too much emotion. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *