TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories October 17, 2014 - 10:50am

When I read stories, sometimes the prose comes across as SO MALE or SO FEMALE. Certainly it can be pretty neutral and not give clues to the gender of the writer, or protagonist. Sometimes this effect is totally on purpose---the author is, say, a woman and writing from the perspective of a male and if the prose comes across male--success! But sometimes I know it must be unintentional--the effect of 'gendered' prose.

I remember reading for my univesity's lit mag and we got this one story that really really sounded like it had been written by a man, and as it was in the first person I just kept envisioning a male main character.  Then there was a scene in which the character was trying on sweaters and I realized it was a female.  It was totally jarring.  The writer was in fact a woman.  

Anyway, ever since, I have always wondered what it is that makes someone sound male or female? 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated October 18, 2014 - 9:00pm

I think maybe it might be a more specific type of woman?  My 21 year old cousin sounds way different than the cleaning lady at work.  They both sound very different than some female math professors.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore October 20, 2014 - 8:42am

I want to be explicitly told (or shown) their sex within the first few paragraphs, as I've experienced this frustration many times (on the page, I mean, not after solicitation arrests—ha). You watch a movie, and—intentional deception aside—you know instantly. You could probably pull off a flash story without ever revealing their sex if it's not relevant to the scene at hand, but anything longer and I gotta know. It's not clever statement-making; it's bad storytelling when we can't picture them. Most times I've seen this, it was from amateur writers who were simply unaware of it, or thought they'd written some action or description that revealed gender but turned out to be too androgynous. 

I generally assume until shown otherwise that a first-person protag is the same gender as its author. Most of what jumps out at me when authors write the opposite sex badly is women who are ruled by irrational emotions (or that they're femme fatales, oversexed and manipulative), or men who are knuckledraggers and want to fix everything (or have physical/handworking careers like carpentry or firefighting).

V.R.Stone's picture
V.R.Stone from London is reading Savages by Don Winslow October 21, 2014 - 4:02am
XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money October 21, 2014 - 2:36pm

I was hoping someone would link to an article that actually goes into the various studies done about gender differences in speech (because I'm too lazy to do so myself. Thanks, V.R.!)

But primarily so that I could point out that they're irrelevant. Yes, there are differences. Subtle, fairly complex, and culturally ingrained to the point that they disappear (or rather become unconscious) within the scope of practical use, but differences none the less. I do not doubt the veracity of the claims about 2% difference in pronoun usage, or in intensity modifiers, or question tags, or co-authorship, or any of it. I believe that these traits are verifiably true, and are not statistically insignificant. If getting all of these details is important to you in your writing, and it makes you happy to do so, go for it. Especially if playing with (i.e. subverting) ambiguous gender definitions is thematically important to your work, you should be aware of these things.

But, in practice, they are irrelevant. For a lot of reasons (I won't go into all of them, so to quicly summate what I'll skip over for now: Saussure was wrong about written text being subservient to speech; there's a heavy male-slant in literature in general, and in writing pedagogy specifically; machines programmed to identify gender differences in writing are still only 60% - 70% accurate (Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women is informal male, and formal weak male, weak apparently being a dysphemism for european) and people are not machines programmed to identify these differences; even then, lyrics, poetry, and prose are actually different modes of language from what these programs are designed to filter anyway and so do no better than guessing (Hence Joyce's Ulysses (controlling for Molly Bloom's monologue) being female, and Woolf's A Room of One's Own being weak male); while being true, these traits are no more true than any other stereotype, so writing prose to these traits is at heart writing stereotypes; there seems to be no control for different languages or cultures in these studies (though to be fair, if you're asking this question in english then you're interested in the english answers we have) which would seem necessary before making claims about the more universal male and female dichotomy (if it even is a dichotomy as current gender studies are bringing into question more and more these days)...) but primarily because asking this question this way in the first place is simply wrong. To go back to the original question, "What makes writing sound male or female?" the answer is: the reader.

Your reader decides whether a piece of writing sounds male or female, often before they've even looked at any of it. Gordon's stipulation that he assumes the gender of the narrator to match the author until shown otherwise may seem unreflective, but is in actuality how most readers approach the texts they read. They assume the narrator is the same gender as the author, or the same as themselves, or always male, or always female, or always neuter... until shown otherwise. And while it's easy to be dismissive of these particular claims because they seem biased, remember that what is at heart in play here are specifically your reader's preconceptions, prejudices, and biases. When you read a piece of prose that "feels" male, it is because it matches up to your preconceived biases about what male prose "feels" like, not because it actually matches up to what "male prose" is. A different reader will have different biases and so it will feel differently. If our preconceptions and biases inherently mapped onto reality, we wouldn't have to ask what makes something sound male or female. But to further illustrate: which of your friends "sound" male, and which "sound" female? If you even analyze your friend's speech patterns in this way, which you probably don't when there are so many other more interesting and relevant ways to analyze the way people talk, (do they "sound" educated? angry? tired? drunk? southern? sexy? foreign? annoying?) how does that match up? If you analyze the way your friends talk, some men will talk "female" and some women will talk "male", and it will have no relevance as to whether they are male or female. So why should that be any different in prose?

Ultimately, the most important part to keep in mind is until shown otherwise. As long as you leave it ambiguous, your readers are going to follow their preconceptions and will say it's male because the author is male, or female because the voice in their heads is their mother's voice from being read stories as a child, or male because they're called writers not writeresses (writerix?), or female because the speech pattern in the opening paragraph uses a lot of personal pronouns, intensifiers, and is a personal story designed to show openness and create familiarity... all biases that you can't control. As Gordon points out, if it is important, the sooner you make it explicit the better, because biases are feedback loops which will just reinforce that their assumption is correct until you show otherwise. And if it isn't the same as what you've made explicit, that's a disconnect that is going to throw some of your readers.

Now it may feel that I'm pessimistic about this whole thing, and we as writers are merely subject to the whimsical prejudices of our readers... but actually the opposite is true. The best way to make your narrator "sound" like a male to your reader is to tell them from the beginning, it's a man. Then your reader does all the hard work for you. Instead of trying to fight your reader's prejudices about whether a character sounds like a man or a woman to them (which ultimately you're going to be just guessing anyway, unless you're a mind reader... What am I thinking about?) just tell them it's a man or a woman, then they'll use their own prejudices to reinforce what you do. All of those feedback loops to reinforce assumptions are still going to happen anyway, so just point them in the right direction from the very beginning, and you don't have to worry about it. Granted, you can stretch this too far, and break it (usually, and ironically, this is done by adhering too closely to stereotypes.)

Though, if you knew that I was thinking of black iced coffee, then one of us is telepathic and can ignore this entire diatribe... but which one?

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. October 21, 2014 - 10:43pm

One of the approaches I take in my writing is to forget the 'sex' of the character and instead focus on the gender - how they see themselves in their world.  It is 'their world' that is a key element here, because setting can tell as much about a character as anything they do or say or think.

In first person narrative, the narrator often describes the surroundings in small chunks of what they see.  (Avoid "I see a rocking chair next to an open window" type of statements - scrub out the "I" verbs (see, smell, taste, etc.) and just describe the object - such as "An empty rocking chair rests next to a broken window".)  If the narrator is describing it, we know that he/she is seeing it.

Anyway, what they report tells as much about them as anything they do or say.  An empty rocking chair sounds very feminine to me because it has the connotation of motherhood.  The emptyness sounds like a feeling of longing.  The broken window gives me the feeling of an intrusion.  Put together, I get the idea that the narrator is a woman who has had a traumatic experience with a child or with her mother.  

The word choice matters here, too.  Empty is a very soft word - abandoned might be better.  But, a masculine word might be 'worthless' or 'useless'.  Masculine words often give a harsher light to the subject, making things more black and white - perhaps even judged by the narrator as useful and not useful.

A good exercise I've practiced is to have a man describe a picture of a room.  Write down the images he focuses on.  Then do the same for a woman.  Compare the notes.  What things do they both notice (genderless items) and the ones that only one gender notices (gendered items).

In one experiment, the female noticed and commented on a chrocheted afghan on a chair.  It reminded her of her grandmother.  The male did not even notice the blanket at all.  The man's eyes were mostly focused on the television in the corner of the room.  He said that it reminded him of the old black and white television he used to watch old tv-shows on with his family.  

Both had a connection to the room that involved their family, but both saw different things that reminded of them.  The man's was a more visual medium, while the woman's was more about comfort and warmth.  

How does a man describe the shoes he is wearing?  Usually in terms of functionality (fit, usefulness, tread).  How does a woman?  (I don't know).

These are just ideas though, and they are not specific to gender.  Writing a masculine female might use most of the same setting factors as writing a masculine male.  In that case, it becomes really important to find the thing that is biologically female and put that in the beginning.  Not knowing the gender/sex of the narrator or main character can ruin a story for a reader really quickly.

Read Amy Hempel and notice how she uses setting.  She does it well.  She could tell an entire setting without putting a single character in it just by the setting she describes.  You'd know the gender, sex, conflict, and tension just by the way she describes a wall - sometimes in just a few sentences.

neverbeen's picture
neverbeen is reading If You Could See Me Now by Peter Straub October 22, 2014 - 1:05pm

I think a good way (out of the many out there) to help in the development of the opposite gender (speaking of the masculine and feminine energy, not sex, which is male or female physicality) is to study your own gender. For me, it was reading about masculinity and what makes a man. Not a guy, a dude, a bro, a homie, a male, but a man. A "Man", if you want. A man is steeped in the masculine, but not is a caricature (Sorry, Manosphere) of eat, sleep, kill, and fuck, without rationale or the ability to express his innate femininity... (of course, this caricature is revered in the Manosphere due to the Western mindset of All-Or-Nothing 100% of the time, but I digress). The Masculine is expansive, energetic, heat, forceful. The Feminine is soft, yielding, cold, hard. The Masculine is direct, problem-solving/abstract thinking. The Feminine is fluent, emotional/immediate thinking.


Great references for this, I think would be: The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida and The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene. I also suggest reading up on Transgenderism.


Here is a great online reference about speaking differences, too:

Mjotve's picture
Mjotve from New York November 12, 2014 - 4:29pm

Someone smart once told me men write paragraphs, then edit. Women edit sentence to sentence. I don't know if that's true, though I keep an eye out for it.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 12, 2014 - 7:50pm

I'm not sure if it's a gender thing, rather than an accentual or verbal quip thing. Now obviously if it were a spoken word novella, that might be different. He/she may format it in a way people speak naturally. Other than this, I'm not sure.

John Walker Lee's picture
John Walker Lee from South Africa is reading A prayer for Owen Meany November 16, 2014 - 11:21pm

There are a few "Gender Guessing" websites that analyse text and give you info on masculinity or feminity. They're scarily accurate (80-90%), and reading how they work (based on real statistics, not just guesses) reveals how to write like a certain gender.

Here's one of them:

"In 2003, a team of researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology and Bar-Ilan University in Israel (Shlomo Argamon, Moshe Koppel, Jonathan Fine, and Anat Rachel Shimoni) developed a method to estimate gender from word usage. Their paper described a Bayesian network where weighted word frequencies and parts of speech could be used to estimate the gender of an author. Their approach made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction writing styles."

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories November 17, 2014 - 12:43am

Totally fascinating.  I write like a male, or weak male in some of my work, but female/weak female in other pieces.