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Avoiding Harm: Copyediting for Conscious Language

The first rule of the Copyeditor’s Typographic Oath is “Do no harm,” but what qualifies as “harm”? Sure, we try to avoid introducing errors when we edit, but there’s more to harm within a text than that.

Some words, phrases, and concepts are harmful to readers because they contain biases and prejudices. It may be intentional, but in my experience, it’s usually unintentional and invisible to the writer and editor.

People have implicit biases and prejudices; it’s part of being human. The sharp-eyed editor who has a keen sense of those biases in the text helps prevent harm for both the writer and the reader. Harmful language can range from microaggressions, like changing a person’s pronoun without their consent, to larger issues, such as creating characters that adhere to a stereotype, particularly a negative one.

We can edit for harm by becoming familiar with conscious language, sometimes referred to as sensitive language or inclusive language. To paraphrase Conscious Style Guide, conscious language is language that is respectful of the people or culture it refers to, specific to the context it’s in. Conscious Style Guide (CSG), run by Karen Yin, advises people to think critically about the language they use, asking questions like:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What tone and level of formality do I want?
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • How might history change the impact of my language choices regardless of my intentions?
  • Who’s being excluded?

Before we can ask those questions, however, we must first identify potentially harmful language.

Recognizing Harmful Language

Recognizing what’s potentially harmful can be challenging. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we often take words we’ve always heard for granted.

We may not have stopped to consider some uses of the term master, for example. While there may be nothing wrong with mastering a subject, a master bedroom implies that there are bedrooms for those who serve masters, that is, slaves. Should we toss out master bedroom completely because of its connection to slavery? Is there a context in which the term would be acceptable? These are the types of questions we need to ask—and we may find that there is no consensus.

We can begin by becoming familiar with sensitive topics, such as sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity, disability, and class. We can also become familiar with communities that are marginalized within our society or the society the text is dealing with: How are they marginalized? Where do they see themselves as being unequal? What topics do they talk about differently than we might?

Editors can also become familiar with hot-button words, such as personal pronouns and race terms. However, Radical Copyeditor’s Alex Kapitan often notes that applying conscious language is rarely about one-to-one word swapping. Context is generally more complex than that, and writers and editors need to dig into that context to decide what to say and how to say it.

Writes Kapitan, “The goal of radical copyediting is not to ‘correct’ language for the sake of promoting one ‘right’ way to use words—rather, the goal is to help people understand and care for each other across different identities and experiences.”

And that may be the heart of the issue: does the text help readers understand and care for the people being written about?

By reading texts outside of our culture and society, written by people who don’t look like us or who have very different worldviews, we’ll start to build a sensitivity to other points of view.

Learning about our unconscious biases can also help. Crystal Shelley’s ACES webcast, Microaggressions in Editing: Understanding Bias and Undoing Harm, is a solid introduction to the topic. Surfing around Micropedia can also help you get a sense of some of the invisible harm words can do.

Making Changes or Recommendations

Once you’ve decided something might be harmful, you next need to identify why it’s harmful, determine if the usage was purposeful, and come up with options if it doesn’t serve the text.

Sometimes writers use words to invoke a specific reaction in readers. Is that the case with the text you’re working on? The best way to find out is to ask. As you would with any bit of text you query, let your author know what the issue is and the potential results if left as is. Then offer a solution. The rest is up to the writer.

Let’s say you’re editing a manuscript that makes references to race, lowercasing both black and white when they’re used as race terms. You’ve done the research and know that many styles recommend capping Black and some recommend capping White as well. The style you’re following doesn’t make recommendations, but a conscious choice should be made regarding these terms. You might frame your query this way:

Many style guides advise capping Black and White when used as race terms, including the Chicago Manual of Style, which is similar to the style we’re using here. OK to cap these terms?

Conscious Language Resources

Where can you find resources for all the potentially harmful terms out there?

CSG is a fantastic place to start. At its core, it’s a database of style guides that focus on different aspects of respectful language, organized by category. You’ll find resources like the Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center of Disability and Journalism, the National Association of Black Journalists Style Guide, and Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language from the American Philosophical Association.

Shelley has also put together some conscious language resources, including her Conscious Language Toolkits (one for writers, one for editors), her ACES webcast, and several helpful blog posts.

Kapitan’s website is a great resource for learning more about problematic terms and how to address them, with the most helpful listed under “Top Posts.”

All of these resources will lead to others, and you’ll find that style guides and other favorite editing resources are beginning to address the topic as well. Once you start looking, you’ll find a wealth of information.

Not One-and-Done Learning

Be sure to check in with your resources often. This is an area where thoughts change frequently, as we all think more deeply about the words we use. Opinions change; what once seemed acceptable may no longer be due to current events or more people adding their insight.

Reading widely and making yourself aware of struggles and sensitivities won’t mean you’ll always recognize something that’s potentially harmful. That’s as possible as never making a grammar mistake. But developing a sense of what to look for and becoming more aware of how certain groups are vulnerable or left out are a great start.

And when you inevitably make a mistake, as we all do, be humble about it. No editor is perfect, and no manuscript is perfect. Fix your mistake if you can, and make note of it for next time, just as you would for any other mistake you make in editing.

Respecting the people that a manuscript is about and for doesn’t just create better copy or a better reading experience; it helps create a more welcoming society.

That’s something we should all strive for.


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