When I launched my editing business in 2015, I wrote down my mission: To help create quality books that make life better for readers, by offering up informed stories - true or fictional - that build empathy, wonder, and hope. Those guiding words seem even more relevant today than they were back in 2015, before the world was subjected to such heavy doses of He Who Cannot Be Named, as I tend to call him (and I don’t mean Lord Voldemort).
When grotesque displays of self-interest, racism, and sexism are churned up so regularly in the public arena, I look for signs of hope. And I find hope in words. Admittedly, some people use words to inflame. But I also see a great surge of writers and editors who are working hard to defend a just and equal society.
Some names that spring to mind are Thomas King, Lee Maracle, and Jael Richardson. Content-wise, hope is conveyed through an endless array of stories. It is part of the basic structure of all our favourite tales. Conflict almost inevitably leads to resolution. Pain leads to redemption. Getting lost leads to finding a way out.
But in the most practical terms, for editors and writers, what are the words of hope? Take note of some little words called pronouns - she and him, for example. While it may seem far-fetched to place the weight of a just society on pronouns, these little words do have a role to play in the big mix of shifting social values.
Bias-free writing is one of the main techniques that editorial guides like the Chicago Manual of Style offer up to writers and editors. Beginning with the 15th edition, Chicago has briefed writers and editors on bias-free language.
Careful writers avoid language that reasonable readers might find offensive or distracting… A careful editor points out to authors any biased terms or approaches in the work.”
In subsequent editions, Chicago has expanded on techniques to achieve gender-neutral language:
Chicago reminds us that sometimes gender-specific language is appropriate and relevant. For example, she is in all likelihood the best pronoun when writing about a pregnant woman, the members of a sorority, or players in a women’s tennis championship. To avoid the pronoun in such cases, according to Chicago, might lead to “absurd prose.”
With some exasperation, the style manual states, “Clumsy artifices such as s/he and (wo)man or artificial genderless pronouns have been tried - for many years - with no success. They won’t succeed. And those who use them invite credibility problems.”
For a different point of view on gender pronouns, follow the link to the University of Wisconsin’s LGBT Resource Centre. The card pictured below was developed there to offer more alternatives to the traditional masculine/feminine pronouns.
The Chicago Manual of Style is thin on specific techniques for avoiding other biases, but recommends more generally to “avoid slighting allusions or stereotypes based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender status, or birth or family status.”
In my next blog post, I’ll summarize some of the advice given by other writers and editors about how to approach these other types of bias.
Even for writers with the best intentions, biases creep into the language. Editors can help guide writers to words that are more inclusive.