Are You Editing Your Work with Today’s World of Inclusive Language in Mind?

Years ago, rules for grammar and descriptors were simple, even if a monument to the patriarchy, and even somewhat awkward at times.

But today’s world is changing, and so is the language we use to refer to people. Some things that used to be acceptable are now considered offensive or inappropriate. Many of the changes to our language were designed to make it more inclusive of all members of society. Last year, the American Psychological Association endorsed the use of the singular they. This was not just to rid English of some of its patriarchal leanings, but to acknowledge that people who are nonbinary do not wish to be addressed as either he or she. So exciting was this change that Merriam Webster’s declared they the Word of the Year for 2019 .

So, given that things are changing, how do you, as an author, take these into account in your writing and editing?

The first step is to recognize that things are changing. Understanding that there are different ways of referring to people than may have been the norm 20 years ago, or even two years ago. New terms that pop up include nonbinary, gender neutral, BIPOC, LGBTQ, and others. The links (some are below) will take you to articles to help you understand what the terms mean and how the language associated with them changes. For example, people who are nonbinary do not identify with standard male/female norms. They may wish to be referred to as a “they,” rather than a he or she. The American Alliance for Museums has a great glossary of terms embedded in its Welcoming Guidelines for Museums pdf (pages 70-74).

The second thing you can do is to look at some of the language guidance offered by editors. Every style guide has its own rules, so start with the guide you use most often. If your guide doesn’t specifically address these issues, the American Psychological Association guide is a great one to start with. APA has taken a great deal of time to think about not just the language, but the psychological implications of the use of language. As an association focused on the psychological well-being of people, APA does not want people to feel excluded or harmed by language. This is where I would think writers want to be. APA’s bias-free language guide looks at all sorts of bias, from race to gender to sexual orientation. For some other style guides, there is the NLGJA Stylebook, the GLAAD Style guide reference, and the Diversity Style Guide

Here are a few other links you might find helpful:

Next, write characters in your books with intentionality. Characters in novels are as imperfect as characters in real life, so no one is expecting everyone to speak perfectly appropriately. Some people are jerks, some people are racists, some people are mean, and some are kind. Characters can and will cross lines, the way people in real life do. However, you want to be aware that your character is crossing a line and have that be part of their character, not a mistake because you lack knowledge.

Finally, reading for sensitivity can help. Getting an editor who specializes in sensitivity, or even sensitivity readers, can make sure you don’t gloss over anything crucial. While sensitivity reading has been more a practice of traditionally published authors, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done in the indie world, too. Also, having a wide variety of beta readers can help flag problem items.

What has been your experience with writing and editing with inclusivity in mind?

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

9 thoughts on “Are You Editing Your Work with Today’s World of Inclusive Language in Mind?”

  1. This is something we all need to grapple with. My concern is also that we need to keep our language period appropriate. Using current terms for people and things for a story set in a different time makes it lose authenticity. It will also date it, badly, in the future when we , once again, change the terms we use. If we keep our language period appropriate that will never be a problem.

    1. Yvonne,

      I completely agree with you. If you use language that’s inappropriate for the time, then it’s not going to work. But, even in using time appropriate language, you need to be conscious of today’s readers. While certain slurs and epithets may have been common at a certain point in history, you have to ask whether using them overabundantly (even if it would have been done at the time) is useful to the narrative being read by people with today’s sensibilities. It’s always something authors need to weigh.

    1. Michael,

      I do not write historical fiction, so I’m not offhand familiar with resources for that. However, I would imagine one of the historical writers associations could help you with that. There are two that I found with a quick Google search:

      Historical Writers of America,
      Historical Writers Association,

      I am sure the community of writers in those organizations would be able to point you to some resources for period-appropriate dialogue.

  2. There are two gender-neutral problems to be solved. The easiest concerns nouns like occupations. In this case, changing “workman” to “worker” or “chairman” to “chairperson” is a piece of cake, and I’m all for it.
    However, the gender-neutral pronoun is a different matter. What gets me is that the political-correctness mob has decided to use “they,” which makes the language less specific in most cases where it’s not needed. What pisses me off supremely is that there is already a gender-neutral singular pronoun. The British use it quite often, or used to. It’s “one,” as in, “One would have to be a fool to use ‘their’ as a gender-neutral pronoun,” easily adapted to, “Ask Mary what one want’s to do.”
    I’m doing my bit. In my latest Sci-Fi series, I have a triple-gender species, in which individuals refer to themselves as “he,” “she,” and “one,” depending on their genders.
    I realize that I’m in a very small minority, here, and I reserve the right to be a curmudgeon. I manipulate my writing so I never have to use the gender-neutral pronoun, and I try to influence my more serious editing clients to do the same.

    1. I’m not sure where you’re from, but I’m a 50-year old Brit, and in my experience, the British don’t use “one” very often at all, and haven’t since the 1970s (I can’t speak to earlier than that). I’ve only seen it used by the upper classes, particularly the royal family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used the way you did in your example of “Ask Mary what one wants to do”.

      The advice in the Guardian style guide more or less fits with my experience: “One should find an alternative, preferably you (unless one is making fun of one’s royal family).”

    2. Gordon,

      You are welcome to continue with your curmudgeon status. When writing fiction, you create your own world and do not have to conform to the new norms or the old norms.

      When writing nonfiction, as I do for a living, one must adhere to certain rules of decorum and respect accorded to one’s subjects. Taking direction from the various style guides helps you be respectful to those you might be interviewing and be aware of the concerns they might have when you are citing them in material. Many people include their preferred pronouns in their signature lines, and to ignore what a person has requested they be called is as rude as calling them another name simply because you like the name you’ve chosen better.

      One of the nice things about the APA style guide decisions on pronouns is that they’re a psychological association and thusly, are concerned, about the mental health of people. It is detrimental to people’s health to deny their being, to suggest they are not. The idea of inclusive language is to help bring respect to all people, as authors and as subjects. They discuss the inclusivity pricniple in their blog post on the singular they.

      The good thing about language is that it changes. It’s fluid and people add new words to it all the time. And frankly, most people don’t care. They tend to embrace new words and go with the flow. What people don’t like is changes of use that challenge the status quo, or signal a change of some part of society. We have that with inclusive language, and that’s why it gets pushed back against. However, change happens. It takes time, but it happens. I’m sure, in 50 years, people will think nothing of the changes we are now making. They will be part of life. The UNCF updated its name, adopting the acronym only because a key word in its name–one that had been in use and popular for many years–became incredibly unpopular. So, I have faith that at some point, the gendered language of today will be viewed with similar chagrin in the future.

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