Tag Archives: development

Inclusive language – and inclusive editing

By Sarah Grey

At the SfEP’s wonderful 2018 conference in Lancaster, I had the privilege of speaking with attendees about inclusive language. It’s strange, leaving the United States to talk about this topic at a time when inclusion and kindness seem to be very low on my country’s agenda – yet I am convinced that the stakes for inclusive and ethical editing are higher than ever.

Three people sat on bench in front of a wall of photo portraitsEditors have a long tradition of defending accuracy and fairness. We want to do right by our clients and by readers. We value inclusivity. We want to be on the right side of history. Almost all social justice movements, whatever their focus, take up questions of language as part of the struggle for equality and freedom. When that happens, language change, which is usually a very gradual process, becomes conscious, deliberate, and much, much faster. Language and politics are forever catching up to one another, pushing and pulling against one another. Our job as editors is to help language catch up.

There’s no one authority on inclusive language. We all have our own biases and knowledge gaps, and we can’t know what other people’s lives are like. People identify ways where language leaves them out or gets them wrong, and they speak up about it and start getting creative about alternatives and trying new things to see what catches on. It’s important for me to add here that there are debates about many of these things (such as people-first language in discussions of disability), so it’s important to stay up to speed on the debates that affect topics you edit.

Language changes because old words haven’t kept up with new realities, or realities that are newly being confronted. When you have the power of naming, you can frame how other people see you. You are literally setting the terms of the discussion. And that, in turn, allows you to put forward what you need in very material and tangible ways.

Etiquette

My grandmother always taught me that the goal of etiquette is to make sure every guest feels welcome and included. As editors it’s our job to see things from the reader’s point of view, not just our own or the author’s – and to welcome readers into the text and keep them reading. So editing for inclusive language is about understanding where language leaves some readers out and finding ways to invite them in.

But there’s a basic principle that underlies the idea of etiquette, of making people feel welcome, and it works very well when editing: treat people like they’re people. Don’t treat them like they’re lesser, like they’re unintelligent, like they don’t exist or don’t matter.

One way of doing this is othering: calling attention to someone’s differences from the unstated idea of ‘normal’: for example, referring to the Asian doctor or the trans librarian when ethnicity and gender aren’t relevant to the story, or dividing a catalogue page into ‘laptop bags’ and ‘women’s laptop bags’. This treats people from the othered group like a special exception whose identity has to revolve around their difference, or like they simply don’t exist, except perhaps in relation to someone more important.

For example, the Guardian recently tweeted the shortlist for the New Academy literary prize with the headline ‘Neil Gaiman and Haruki Muramaki up for alternative Nobel literature prize’. Only seven paragraphs in did the article mention that ‘the shortlist is completed with two female writers’, Maryse Condé and Kim Thúy.

Silhouttes of people standing, their reflections on the floorSo this is something we can watch for as we edit – is everyone identified equally? Do the women have names? Does the interview ask everyone about their child-care arrangements, or only the women? It’s also common to see men’s names given with a full title and women’s titles omitted, as well as surnames for men and first names for women.

Do these slights in themselves hurt anyone? Yes and no. Small instances that might seem innocuous enough pile up. If you’re labelled as other, these microaggressions, as they’re called, happen over and over, and in patterns and in partnership with more violent incidents. Experience that enough and you begin to see how one feeds into the other.

Ethics

That brings us to ethics – because the way we as editors use language has serious consequences in the real world.

Our decisions can influence what the boundaries of normal, legitimate discourse are. Granted, when someone like Donald Trump is in power, those boundaries are pushed further and further out into the realm of the bizarre, but here we are. The boundaries of legitimate discourse can, depending on where we as a society place them, contribute to or even provide justification for physical violence. And while our decisions can’t shape the course of language change, we do have some influence over how language changes. And in that respect, the decisions we make truly do matter.

In the news media it’s especially noticeable when different words are used to describe the same things done by different people. Words carry assumptions and judgements: Are you a protestor or a rioter? Are you assertive or abrasive? Is your government an administration or a regime? The specifics of these terms vary from place to place depending on who has power. They also function as ‘dog whistles’, political code. When these saturate the media and find their way into people’s worldviews, that can have real consequences, including violence.

There are always competing narratives about any conflict, so when you’re editing material that deals with one, whether it’s intended to be neutral or takes a specific stance, you need to do your research and understand which terms are used by whom and whether terms imply a specific stance or are relatively neutral.

The term illegal alien, for example, sounds like it should refer to Klingons or Time Lords, but it’s been used since the 1990s to describe people arriving at the US–Mexico border from Central and South America. It has largely fallen out of mainstream use over the last decade or two, as human rights activists have pointed out that it is blatantly dehumanising. The AP Stylebook, the New York Times, and the American Library Association dropped the term, with the latter noting that it is ‘increasingly associated with nativist and racist sentiments’. Avoiding such inflammatory terms isn’t euphemism; it’s accuracy.

But this July, the federal Department of Justice sent an email to all US attorneys’ offices instructing them never to use the term ‘undocumented immigrants’ and instead refer only to ‘illegal aliens’. In the context of thousands of immigrant children under the age of five being separated from their parents and detained literally in cages, the federal government is taking steps to ensure that only the most dehumanising possible term is used. That’s not a coincidence.Barbed wireWe see similar dehumanisation of migrants across Europe. Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Institute describes this as ‘a conscious policy to reintroduce language that was previously not acceptable in debate’. Obviously we can’t control what the politicians do, but we can push back when we see that sort of language being treated as normal discourse in the texts we edit.

Customer service

As editors, it’s our job to help our clients convey a message to an audience and to remove anything that gets in the way of that message, like unintended sexual connotations or grammatical mistakes. That includes protecting them from making gaffes or inadvertently causing offence. Often these mistakes come from ignorance or thoughtlessness.

There are also times where the author might not actually be flat-out wrong, but still manages to distract the reader. (This is why I advise writers to stay away from the word niggardly, even though its etymological origins have nothing to do with the racial slur.)

This doesn’t mean that you have to make your clients’ writing bland or inoffensive. Nor does it mean that you should shrug off or ignore or cover up writing that’s problematic. What it means is that if your author is going to offend anyone, you want that to be intentional. As an editor I’m a proxy for the reader, and if something causes a strong reaction in me, I want to be absolutely sure that it’s the reaction the author was going for.

We also have a responsibility to keep our authors up to date. Just as we would correct them if they used outdated tech terms, we can do the same when it comes to social issues. We’re not here to shame our authors or tell them they’re doing it all wrong. We’re here to make the finished product better, so a little tact can go a long way.

I try to assume the best of intentions on the author’s part and start from there. Most of the time it will end with the client thanking you.

Tools

If you’re writing about a specific community, check for style guides published by advocacy groups. If you find yourself working a lot on a specific issue, consider compiling your own stylesheet to help you keep things straight.

If you’re still not clear on certain terms or ideas, though, don’t just ignore them: make the effort to learn. Read books, articles and blogs by prominent members of the community you want to learn more about, consume their art, follow them on social media, or talk to them in person. If you do more listening than talking, you’ll pick up on a lot, not just about what terms people are using but also how people in that community are affected as human beings by language. And if you really need in-depth information you can’t find on your own, consider hiring one of the many people who offer consulting on these issues.

What if you screw up? Try not to get defensive or make it about yourself; listen and try to understand it from the reader’s perspective. Speaking up about oppressive language can be stressful, so the person taking the risk of pointing out your error is doing you a favour. Respect that, learn from it and try to do better. It gets easier with practice.

The bottom line is that if you’re editing only the words on the page, you’re not being thorough. We also have to read – and edit – what’s between the lines. That’s what inclusive editing is all about.

Sarah GreySarah Grey is a freelance editor and writer at Grey Editing LLC in Philadelphia, USA, and the 2016 recipient of the American Copy Editors Society’s Robinson Prize for Excellence in Copyediting. Before becoming a full-time freelancer, Sarah spent several years in the translation industry, where she learned the importance of cultural sensitivity and of understanding a text’s audience. She specialises in academic nonfiction, social justice, and food writing.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

London Royal Holloway - the venue for the 25th SfEP annual conference 13-15 September 2014

10 ways to get the most out of the SfEP annual conference

London Royal Holloway - the venue for the 25th SfEP annual conference 13-15 September 2014

The 25th SfEP annual conference takes place at London Royal Holloway from 13-15 September 2014

By Joanna Bowery

Whether you’ve already booked your ticket or you’re still considering whether to go, here are ten ways to get the most out of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) annual conference.

1. Set goals. Think about what you want to gain from the conference and how this links with an area of editing or proofreading you’d like to find out more about or want to get involved in. Look at the conference programme and write a list of things you want to learn, questions you’d like to be answered and people you want to meet. Once you’ve written down your goals, review them after the sessions at conference and again when you get home to see if you’ve achieved them.

2. Book early! Get in early to book your preferred workshops and seminars; online booking opens on 23 July and the sessions are allocated on a first come, first served basis. When choosing your sessions, don’t just go for the ones where you would feel most comfortable: choose one session that could introduce you to new ideas or subjects.

3. Prepare. Research the sessions and the speakers, to find out what they might be talking about and to help you come up with questions, both in the sessions and when you’re socialising. When you arrive, check out the delegate list. Is there a name from the SfEP forums or the SfEP social networks – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – that you recognise? Now is your chance to meet them in person. Familiarise yourself with the Royal Holloway campus map, to reduce the risk of getting lost.

4. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions during the sessions, especially if it helps you develop your knowledge of an area of editing or proofreading that you identified when you set your goals. Outside the conference events, asking questions of everyone you meet is the best way to start a conversation.

5. Be approachable. If you are engrossed in your phone or look grumpy, you won’t get to talk to anyone. Make eye contact and smile and you’ll soon get chatting to others. When you sit down, speak to the person next to you. If you’re nervous about ‘networking’, practise one introductory sentence about yourself and then have ready a couple of questions. ‘Where have you come from?’, ‘What have you enjoyed the most so far?’ or ‘What session are you most looking forward to?’ are easy openers that can get a conversation started. And don’t forget to hand out – and ask for – business cards, so you can follow up on your new contacts after the conference.

6. Join the conversation online. Use the #SfEP14 tag and follow the hashtag on Twitter. Chatting online before the conference can make it easier to meet delegates in real life. It can also be fun to discover others’ perspectives on the conference and sessions. Also, by talking about the conference on social media, you will be showing your professional contacts that you are committed to professional development by attending the conference.

7. Socialise. All work and no play can make for a very dull conference. Informal chatting to colleagues and potential clients helps to cement connections and makes you more likely to keep in touch after the conference. As well as going to the gala dinner or for a drink after the sessions, make an effort to eat with people you haven’t met before, and be confident enough to strike up conversations. One of the best things about the SfEP conference is that it is an opportunity to meet other freelance and in-house proofreaders and editors and to share experiences and advice. So make the most of the opportunity to make or catch up with professional contacts; this can often lead to future business opportunities and friendships too.

8. Think about what to wear. While you may be sitting down for workshops and seminars, you will also be doing a fair bit of walking and standing. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes, so you can focus on the sessions and on meeting new people and catching up with old friends, not on your throbbing feet after a day spent wearing new shoes!

9. Make notes. Remember to bring a notebook so you can jot down some notes about what you learned in the sessions and who you met. After the conference, compile your notes into a report. Why not share your experiences by posting a blog or contributing to the SfEP conference report?

10. Have fun! Enjoy your time out of the office, developing your knowledge, meeting new people and – of course – celebrating 25 years of the SfEP annual conference.

The SfEP 25th annual conference – Editing: fit for purpose – takes place on Saturday 13 –Monday 15 September 2014. You can book tickets until 18 July.

What advice would you add to help delegates make the most of the SfEP conference?

Joanna Bowery social media manager at the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP)

Joanna Bowery is the SfEP social media manager. As well as looking after the SfEP’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and the SfEP blog, she is a freelance marketing and PR consultant operating as Cosmic Frog. Jo is an associate of the SfEP and a Chartered Marketer. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. In her spare time, Jo enjoys rugby (although she has retired from playing) and running.

Proofread by Jane Hammett, an advanced member of the SfEP.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

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