I recently attended the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference, an intense three days of sessions on topics ranging from headline writing to fiction editing to checklists to the history of English spelling to culturally sensitive language. I came away enthusiastic, energized, and ready to take on the world of words, one dictionary entry at a time.
Kidding aside, one of the biggest takeaways for me was a real understanding of the editor’s role not just in the written word but in the development of language itself. Instead of “What is an editor?” we should be asking why there are editors. And, perhaps even more important, how we can edit with sensitivity to writer, reader, and the larger community.
Cute memes aside, editors aren’t only about correcting or even preserving?whether upholding standards of grammar or ensuring the one, true, correct spelling. But neither should we be agents of change, going about shaping or outright creating the future to further our own notions of language, usage, and social norms.
Our role should be one of reflecting, but not like a mirror, blindly applying what’s popular or common or part of the rulebook (yet potentially problematic and distorted). Rather, we need to use existing language and human needs as a guide in making judgment calls that promote clarity, communication, and community. And in this role we reflect in a general way the hundreds of little decisions every writer or language user makes whenever they open their mouth or uncap their pen.
Take, for example, the long-running dispute over the singular they. I’m not going to get into the debate here?other than to mention that there’s plenty of both historical and present-day support for its use?but its gradual acceptance in everyday writing is a great illustration of the editor’s role in language change.
First, readers and writers began recognizing that applying “he” to general contexts was an archaic practice rooted in sexist ideas. But the workarounds were more and more awkward; and now that acceptance of the LGBTQ community is no longer rare, more and more literary types are turning to the singular they to write more clearly, concisely, and respectfully. Better still, their editors recognize the need?and allow what was previously frowned upon to stay boldly in the text.
The reason? A singular they is a way of avoiding problems like these:
– The archaic and sexist general he (“Each student should do his best.”)
– The convoluted and clunky workarounds (“Each student should do his/her best.”)
– The confusing alternate-swapping (“Each student should do his best. Then she should wait for her grade.”)
– The insufficiency of traditional gender labels (“Each student should do his/her best.” only refers to male/female genders and may not describe the experience of members of the LGBTQ community)
Cultural sensitivity, clarity, and conciseness?all vital aspects of communication, and all areas an editor must consider even when looking at words as small and nondescript as pronouns. It’s an overwhelming responsibility, but an exciting one?and it’s one shared by anyone who works with the written or spoken word.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.