This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Suzanne Arnold reviewed Conscious and inclusive editing: Understanding conscious language and the editorial role, presented by Crystal Shelley.
Words can uplift, empower and inspire, says Crystal. But they can also invalidate, marginalise and erase. ‘Language … has the power to perpetuate stigma and stereotypes and to misrepresent.’
Editors have an opportunity to help authors recognise and replace potentially harmful language before it’s published.
What is conscious language?
Conscious language is rooted in compassion, choosing words to reflect our intention.
For example, many wheelchair users dislike the phrase ‘wheelchair-bound’ because it implies the chair is a negative thing, whereas they see it as a tool that helps them go about their daily lives. So if we say that someone is wheelchair-bound, it’s often inaccurate and can be stigmatising.
‘Many conscious language issues are unintentional’: most of us don’t deliberately offend or upset people. The problem is using words or phrases unthinkingly or out of habit – perhaps terms that we were taught as children or hear other people use.
This isn’t about the author’s intent, but the impact on readers.
Language conveys our values and beliefs, and so, unintentionally using harmful language can affect reputation. It can also, of course, have real-world consequences, including negative reviews, bad publicity, even cancelled contracts or financial loss.
What can editors look out for?
First, don’t worry if this seems daunting. We all have to start somewhere and learning can be an ongoing process.
To help us watch out for potentially problematic language, Crystal gave the following pointers, with examples.
Ask yourself whether the language is:
- disrespectful (eg using ‘pow wow’ to describe a meeting at work strips the term of its cultural significance)
- stigmatising (eg ‘crazy’ – even if it’s not being used to stigmatise those with mental illness or whose behaviour seems ‘different’, it may provoke an unintended emotion in the listener or reader)
- inaccurate (eg ‘wheelchair-bound’)
- biased (eg default ‘he’)
- excluding (eg referring to ‘both’ genders)
- outdated (eg ‘oriental’, ‘senile’)
- dehumanising (eg ‘illegal immigrant’ – we may think of phrases such as this as ‘the norm’, but they strip people of their humanity and individuality)
- presumptuous (eg Columbus ‘discovered’ America – people lived there long before he arrived)
- judgemental (eg ‘suffers from’)
- rooted in oppression.
How can editors raise these issues with authors?
Don’t feel afraid that you’re trying to impose your own views or biases on the text. We raise these issues because ‘they may interfere with the author’s ability to get their message across effectively to readers’.
And that’s the key to giving feedback – keep it focused on the reader and potential unintended effects on them. Keep it constructive and professional, offer suggestions for other wording they could use and share links to relevant resources.
Find out more
You can learn more from Crystal’s blog posts. She also sells conscious language toolkits (one for writers and one for editors), which include lists of problematic terms explaining why they could do harm and suggesting alternatives.
The Conscious Style Guide is another good source of information.
This statement of Crystal’s reminds us why it’s worth making the effort:
‘Most readers won’t notice the absence of harmful language, but they’ll notice its use.’
Suzanne Arnold is an Advanced Professional Member who specialises in copyediting and proofreading non-fiction for adults.
About the CIEP
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.