A Copyeditor’s Responsibility to Marginalized Communities

As a White woman working as a copyeditor, I know that I’m in an industry with a long history of harm targeting the stories of marginalized communities. From publishing companies refusing to print stories by people of color to copyeditors erasing a person or character’s chosen pronouns in the name of language purity. “I have had so many pieces where editors have agreed to the nonbinary language, and then copyeditors destroy it,” says author Jen Manion in the article linked above.

Thankfully, these things are changing, but it’s important to be informed on this history and to acknowledge that it takes intentional actions to ensure further progress. It is our duty to recognize the harm that has been done and is being done and to focus on supporting storytellers and readers within historically excluded communities any way we can. These are just a few ways copyeditors can be effective allies:

Do no harm. This is the number one rule for copyeditors, and it should be even more emphasized when working with projects outside of your own lived experience. If a pronoun usage seems confusing to you, don’t just redline it without querying the author if the use was intentional, and only do so if you think the readers would be confused by the usage. There are plenty of solutions that would maintain the person or character’s pronouns and clear up confusing sentence structure. For more information on debunking the myth that singular they/them pronouns are improper English, I invite you to read Sinclair Sexsmith’s post.

Never stop learning. Terms that were preferred and acceptable ten years ago, may be considered harmful today and vice versa. As copyeditors, we have to constantly evolve alongside the languages we edit in order to do right by the writers we serve and their readers. There are countless resources to help you along this ever-changing landscape. To name a few, keep up with workshops from ACES and EFA, which have focused on topics like microaggressions, sensitivity reading, and trans-allyship in editing; bookmark the Conscious Style Guide and Disability Language Style Guide; and follow blogs like the Radical Copyeditor.

Focus on the voice, not the grammar. Grammar can be and has been weaponized to promote the racist notion that there is only one way to “correctly” use English. Yes, there are guides and dictionaries that outline the rules of language, but those rules are constantly evolving! And unless a writer’s meaning is in danger of being lost to the reader, there is no point in disrupting their voice for the sake of arbitrary rules. For more on the dangers of relying on language purity, I encourage you to look into the impacts of language-based racism.

Encourage writers to invest in sensitivity readers. Let’s say you have a White author whose story includes a character of another race, or a cisgender author whose story includes a trans or non-binary character; if you, the copyeditor, also do not belong to that community and therefore might unintentionally miss biased language, be sure to urge your writer to hire a sensitivity reader who can call out biased language, insensitive remarks, and harmful stereotypes. I’m not of the belief that authors cannot include characters with different life experiences—that would make for very boring books—but I do believe that there is a certain responsibility that authors must accept so as not to perpetuate harm. To learn more about sensitivity reading, I recommend starting with Rabbit with a Red Pen’s Sensitivity Reading 101 post.  

Be ready and willing to refer other editors. I know we copyeditors may want to accept every job that comes our way, but not every project is meant for us. Writers deserve the opportunity to work with editors who reflect their lived experience. And I don’t know about you, but when I search “editors” I see a LOT of White faces. Keeping a reference list in your back pocket could make all the difference for that writer who wants their work handled by someone who understands their experience more intimately. You might refer them to the Editors of Color database or post on one of the many editing community groups to ask around for an editor of a certain background or lived experience. This might apply more so for developmental editing, where insight into the author’s background could greatly affect the direction of the edits, but I’m including it here because copyeditors often suggest changes that could invalidate the author’s experience as mentioned above.

It is so important to read books written by and about people of color, people within the LGBTQ+ community, people within the disability community, and people of differing faiths or ideologies; doing so generates empathy and encourages connection and social justice. But the process to get those books published can be stacked with obstacles. It is our duty as copyeditors to make sure that we clear those obstacles and stop the cycle of harmful practices.

This is by no means a complete list. Comment below with other ideas for how copyeditors can support historically excluded communities!

Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash


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