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I am trying to write a novel. I want to write in a manner that will be respectful toward gender.

I have not yet figured out how to refer to female college-age characters quickly and smoothly without just calling them girls. "Young ladies" sounds respectful but awkward especially when used repeatedly.

For example, the main character might walk down a busy path across the college campus and see many female peers along the way. I need a way to be able to refer to these peers and describe them as they are observed in passing.

Can I just say "A girl with long black hair walked by staring with wide eyes. Behind her, another girl slowly lowered her phone from her ear, and snapped a photo."

or would I need to say "A young woman with long black hair walked by staring with wide eyes. Behind her, another young woman slowly lowered her phone from her ear, and snapped a photo."

Do you see how it will get cumbersome? My novel is intended to be fantasy and humorous at times. I need to keep it informal sounding.

Help?

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    I sympathize with your plight, but I suspect the people whom you think will be offended by girl will not be part of your audience. You will not lose those readers by using the word girl. Does that help? Feb 15 at 14:20
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One possibility might be to rely on pronouns. That's controversial in other ways, but might solve your particular problem

A passing student stared, then tossed her long black hair in
astonishment. Another slowly lowered her phone from her ear to snap a photo.

If this doesn't work I would expect "woman" or "young woman" rather than "girl".

Your choice may also depend on your intended audience. Some readers will expect more formality and respectful address than others.

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How about you introduce the whole group using 'young ladies' and then, mention each one using 'One of them... Another one..., Behind her, a tall blonde..., etc.? I have no idea how or whether this might work at all, though.'

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