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“The Conscious Style Guide”: Transforming Language to Foster Equity and Understanding

Karen Yin’s The Conscious Style Guide has long been hoped for by writers and editors interested in intentional, compassionate language, myself included.

Yin coined the term conscious language in the early 2010s to describe a practice of being “more aware, mindful, and intentional about how we treat ourselves and others through language” (xv). She explored her ideas in, among other places, the Copyediting newsletter when I was editor-in-chief, and launched a resource site, ConsciousStyleGuide.com, in 2016. Her articles uncovered hidden biases in both my own thoughts and the thoughts of our society in general. They were eye-opening, and her website gave us more to think about while offering resources to be more intentional in our language choices.

On the site, you can delve into a world of topics, including age, race, gender, climate and environment, and health. Editors often refer to the site as a great starting point for any conscious language issue. I’m grateful for any map to direct me, but what if the issue I was dealing with isn’t listed, even on such a comprehensive site? And what about issues I haven’t learned to identify yet?

Yin’s new book provides the answers.

What Is Conscious Language?

Let’s back up for a minute. What exactly is conscious language? In her new book, Yin defines it succinctly as “language that promotes equity” (3). It’s “a philosophy and a practice that goes beyond terminology,” she writes. “To use conscious language is to be more aware, mindful, and intentional about how we treat ourselves and others through language” (xv).

For writers and editors, conscious language involves asking questions about ourselves and our texts. From the website’s About page:

  • What are my assumptions about my audience?
  • Will this cause harm to historically excluded communities?
  • How will history alter the impact of my language choices?

“For me,” writes Yin in her book, “using conscious language means stretching the commas in my thought process into em dashes to gather clarity and purpose” (4).

That’s a worthy goal for all of us. And it takes more than a naughty-word list to get there.

How to Practice Conscious Language

The practice of conscious language isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts; it can’t be. That would remove the critical thinking behind it. As a result, The Conscious Style Guide is not a list of suggestions, such as you find in The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook. “When we treat conscious language like a phrasebook instead of a contextual tool,” writes Yin, “it is no longer conscious” (32).

Instead, Yin guides us through the conscious language philosophy (chapter 1, “Prepare”) and an overview of implicit biases (chapter 2, “Plan”) before detailing how to apply conscious language in our writing and speaking (chapter 3, “Practice”). She doesn’t give us what we’ve been explicitly asking for. She gives us what we need to create our own guidance—a “system … for thinking about these constantly changing issues” (xiii).

Practicing conscious language involves taking risks and feeling vulnerable, so chapter 4 (“Pause”) addresses the effects that conscious language can have on us. This is perhaps the most important chapter because if you want to stick with this practice, you’ll need to continue beyond your initial efforts. We’re human: we make mistakes and we can become discouraged. But Yin reassures readers that this is all part of “finding your way around” the philosophy of conscious language (xxi). And, even more importantly, she shares some techniques for caring for yourself when you are feeling worn out by your efforts. You can regain your energy with a little self-care and willingness to take risks.

The book closes with a chapter on how to encourage others to use conscious language and how to grow your own practice (chapter 5, “Persuade”). It might be clear how someone in a position of authority could encourage their team or company to adopt conscious language practices, but what can a lone editor do? Yin shows how, no matter how powerless you think yourself, you can persuade others. She also lists many helpful references and, naturally, points to the Conscious Style Guide website for more.

Who Should Practice Conscious Language

The Conscious Style Guide is for anyone interested in language that promotes equity, including:

  • Business professionals. Leaders, managers, and HR professionals will especially benefit from using it to communicate with employees and set more equitable policies.
  • Instructors and coaches. Improve your interactions with your students and coaches by communicating in a more intentional, equitable way.
  • Professional speakers. Conscious language can help you better connect with your audience and better develop your ideas.

And, yes, this book is especially valuable for writers and editors to help them better communicate with readers and become a gate opener, “let[ting] through more of the voices, ideas, and identities we want to nurture and protect” (51–52).

If you’re familiar with conscious language, you might be tempted to dive right into chapter 3. Fight that temptation. It’s like reading the front matter of a dictionary: your understanding of how to use this tool will jump into the stratosphere if you take the time for those first chapters. Then you can use chapter 3 to guide your writing and editing and chapter 5 to influence others.

Throughout the book Yin is encouraging. Each of us is capable of making a difference in our world. She empowers us to think for ourselves and make decisions that fit our circumstances. “An ideal conscious language practice,” she writes in chapter 1, “is one that creates more ease and calm in your life while maximizing your ability to do good.”

I’m in.

The Conscious Style Guide launches on May 28, 2024. Preorder it now directly from the publisher or from your favorite bookseller.

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