When I was about eight years old, I read everything I could get my hands on. I read kids’ books and grownup books, and learned that the grownup books weren’t always talking to me.
But I still remember the first time a text made me feel excluded. I don’t remember what book it was, but I remember the sentence:
Every boy needs his dog.
I’d been begging my mother for a dog for months. Didn’t girls need dogs, too? What about us? I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.
Now that I’m a professional editor, I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and speaking about what I like to call inclusive language. When do readers feel excluded—or even slapped in the face—and why? Even more importantly, how can I work with my clients to help them avoid losing readers by making them feel that way?
Some people refer to this as “political correctness”—and accuse editors and others who point out questionable language choices of censorship. But the truth is, inclusive language goes beyond what’s political or even what’s correct. It’s about three factors that are central to our profession: etiquette, ethics, and customer service.
Good manners are about making guests and others feel welcome—just as your audience should feel welcomed into a text. Language that demeans readers, ignores the reality of their lives, or makes assumptions about them does precisely the opposite. Why would you want to be rude to your readers? Calling people what they’ve asked to be called and treating them with respect is what inclusive language is all about.
The decisions editors make have real consequences out in the world. We get to decide where the boundaries of decency are—what’s acceptable and what isn’t—and that gives us certain responsibilities. We know, for example, that transgender people face some of the highest rates of murder, violence, and suicide—so we have a responsibility to avoid outing people without their consent and to contribute to building a culture that treats transgender people as human beings. We know, too, that women are still paid less for the same work and are taken less seriously in the workplace—so we need to ask questions when we edit copy that pays more attention to a female politician’s shoes than to her policies.
We’re here to make our authors (and those who publish them) look their best. That means not only correcting their grammar and spelling but helping them avoid gaffes or insensitive phrasing that will offend or alienate readers. Done with sensitivity and grace, this can be a key part of building a constructive and trusting author-editor relationship.
If you’re interested in learning more about inclusive language, you can attend my session at the American Copy Editors Society conference next week in Portland, Oregon, or join my three-week in-depth course this April at Copy-editing to take your skills to the next level.
Sarah Grey is a freelance editor and writer at Grey Editing LLC in Philadelphia. She serves as a member-at-large on the Editorial Freelancers Association board of governors. 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 specializes in academic nonfiction, social justice, and food writing.