Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What We Do

A new commenter, Sym, in a comment to my long-ago post on How to Become an Editor, posed the following excellent question:

I'm also aware that editing is so much more than just taking care of sentence flow and typos at that level, but includes the need for an ability to look at the storyline itself and decide where it's too drawn out, where it needs to be beefed up, which characters might need to be brought forward or pushed back more- all of which is most definitely my weak point. Plotting is my archnemesis, so to speak. And there are other skills, too, bits and pieces that maybe I'm not even aware existed. So I suppose my question is more- what's the best way to learn these skills? Is it something that can be taught, and I just don't know what class name they're lurking behind? Or is it something that I ultimately will or won't be able to do, simply because my brain doesn't work properly?

Here's the thing: it's rare for one editor to do all that. Sym is absolutely correct that a good grasp of the mechanics of language at the sentence level does not always translate to an ability to grasp the mechanics and techniques that make a compelling story. This is why most publishing houses separate these functions.

Let's look first at what all editors (should) do:

Editors, whether they work on novels, government reports, advertising copy, or textbooks, act as the readers' advocates. We need to understand how the people reading our particular type of work read and understand, and what they need in order to get what our authors are trying to communicate. Editors of fantasy novels understand what people who read fantasy novels look for in a novel. They understand the conventions of which those readers are aware. They understand how novels, in general, work. They know the conventions of fiction. So they can tell an author where a reader may find something unclear, or jarring.

Editors of science textbooks understand how students read and learn science. They know how to help authors communicate difficult concepts clearly. They understand the conventions and formats common to textbooks, and make sure that all the content fits into that format. They know how teachers approach their classrooms, and make sure that the textbook contains problems that will enable a teacher to assess a student's understanding.

Obligatory Disclaimer
I am presenting an overview of how the editorial process works, based on my experience and my understanding of the jobs of people with whom I've spoken or whose descriptions of their jobs I have read. This means that individual author-editor relationships may differ in their particulars from what I describe, and individual publishing endeavours may do things differently. Larger organizations tend to have more people performing different tasks; smaller houses may have one person doing everything (though this is rarely ideal). I welcome descriptions from other editors of what they do and how things work for them, and from authors of how the process looks from their side. I don't know everything about the industry, nor do I pretend to.

Okay. So the reader should be in the front of the editor's mind, whether the editor is correcting the spelling in a fiction manuscript or choosing art and photos for a magazine article on cars. But not every editor is going to be a whiz at story structure, and not every editor is going to be a grammatical warlock. That's okay. There is a role for each talent (whether there's a job for each editor is another, somewhat more depressing, question, but let's leave that for now.)

The Editors' Association of Canada divides editorial skill into roughly four categories:

substantive editing
stylistic editing
copy editing

For a good overview of what you need to know and be able to do in order to perform each function at a professional level, read EAC's Professional Editorial Standards.

There are other types of editing, to be sure. There are editors who manage editorial processes. There are production editors, who make sure that manuscripts get copyedited, and that all the bits get where they need to go in order to make the printer date. There are editors who deal almost exclusively with art and photographs. There are editors whose job is mostly to acquire books. But, for simplicity's sake, for the moment, let's look at these four categories of editor. I've ordered them according to when, in the ideal editorial process, the author and manuscript will encounter each one.

Substantive Editing
Sometimes called "editing," or "book doctoring," in fiction, and "developmental editing," in educational publishing, this is the "big picture," edit. The editor considers the contents and the substance of the manuscript to make sure that everything that the reader needs is present, that information is presented in an order that makes sense, and that nothing extraneous survives.

In fiction, the substantive editor works with the author to make sure that the story works as a story:
  • Does the plot hold together?
  • Do the characters' motivations and actions make sense?
  • Do the characters justify their existence?
  • Is the pacing appropriate to the story?
  • Does the story make sense as a story?
  • Is any thematic material or imagery consistent?
  • Is the setting consistently realised?
  • Has the author built a convincing, rule-governed, consistent world?
The editor may flag areas where the author has been repetitive, or conversely, hasn't given the reader enough information.

In non-fiction, the editor's role is still the same; however, story may be less important than making sure that the author's facts are well presented, that the author builds a convincing argument, and that the information is presented in an order that makes sense.

When I work as a developmental editor on a textbook or teacher's resource, I'm considering the student, the teacher, and the curriculum. I make sure the author has met the curriculum expectations for a given chapter or unit, and that the reading level is appropriate for the grade in question. I make sure that we've identified glossary terms, and that we have enough end-of-chapter questions. I work with the author to identify illustrative material—photos, diagrams, illustrations, charts, graphs and other non-text elements—that will support the text and engage the readers. I may write captions for the illustrations we choose. I flag inappropriate language, and I check with subject-matter reviewers to make sure the author hasn't presented anything inaccurate. I also cut and condense to make the material fit in the space we've allocated for it without compromising the information.

So, to recap (we do that a lot in educational publishing): at the substantive editing stage, we're dealing with changes to the contents of the manuscript and the order in which they're presented. It would, in many cases, be silly to spend a lot of time polishing the wording or obsessing over the punctuation at this stage, because we're still cutting entire passages (and sometimes chapters).

Editors working at this stage of the process need to understand structure: how to build a story, or an argument, or a narrative. They need to know how to organize information so that readers get the information they need at the appropriate time. They may not, in fact, be able to rhyme off the seven functions of the comma at the drop of a hat (but some of them can!), but they know what makes a story work.

Substantive editing tends to bleed into the next editorial step, so much so that it was only relatively recently that the Editors' Association of Canada separated the two stages out. In the next step, we look at the language.

Stylistic Editing
This is also called "line editing," or sometimes "editing." The goal, at this stage, is to make sure the language flows and is clear for the reader. If an author is an excellent prose stylist, the editor may do very little of this. If an author is more a subject-matter expert than a wordsmith, the editor may have a lot of smoothing to do. How much smoothing the editor may do depends on the extent of the editor's authority, the author-editor relationship, and to some degree the type of publication (for some textbook projects, I re-write entire passages; I have much more freedom in these projects than I would have editing an author's novel or a magazine article.)

At this stage, the editor working with sentences and paragraphs. We're making sure that any pronoun has a clear antecedent, that metaphors are not egregiously mixed, that an author has not unwittingly used three words where one would have sufficed. We're smoothing transitions, and keeping the voice consistent. If the project has multiple authors, we may be trying to make them all sound like one, slightly more boring, author. Or, we may not. It all depends on the project. We're making the prose as good as it can be, for the anticipated reader.

Editors at this stage really understand prose (or poetry, if they're working in poetry). They know not only how to use language to express an idea with clarity and grace, but also how language can evoke mood and tone, and they are acutely sensitive to nuance. Stylistic editors are often very good at pastiche: like Mozart in the movie Amadeus, they can play a tune in the style of any other composer.

And, of course, this stage bleeds into the next stage, where an exacting expert of syntax, spelling, and usage combs the manuscript, eradicating error and imposing consistency.

The Copyedit
The copyeditor's sharp eyes are the last eyes to see the manuscript before it goes to the formatter to be made to look like a book (or a magazine article or whatever). By the time the copyeditor sees the manuscript, all the big questions—what goes, what stays, how it all hangs together—should have been dealt with, leaving the copyeditor to make sure that no little errors survive to throw the reader out of the prose.

The copyeditor makes sure that the prose is correct—that no errors of grammar, usage, spelling have survived the editorial process, and that obvious factual errors are caught and corrected. The copyeditor also makes sure that everything in the manuscript is consistent: that anytime there are two possible correct choices, the same choice is made each time. A copyeditor may also point out copy-paste errors, where an editor may have accidentally chopped off part of a sentence, and may deal with fiddly issues of wording and formatting.

If the manuscript didn't have a enough time with the line editor, the copyeditor may re-word sentences or even paragraphs, but typically, the copyeditor's authority and responsibility do not extend to wholesale rewrites.

Copyeditors are exacting and precise. They have sharp eyes and great memories for details. They know the difference between "unique" and "unusual," and they care passionately. They can spot a typo, or a botched conversion from feet to metres, and find a home for any misplaced modifiers.

So, no, you don't need to be good at everything. Specialization is not only for insects, it's also for editors.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Editing Out Oppression: Disability and Narrative

Just two weeks after we discussed oppressive narratives in the context of editing and writing, Lisa Coriale writes in the Tyee about some of the narrative boxes into which she has been unwillingly stuffed:

The way people with disabilities are covered is problematic because it suggests attention is merited only when a person with disabilities can be portrayed as a superhero or a victim.

Don't feel sorry for me

For example, I was labeled a superhero. In an article that appeared in Kamloops This Week in May 2007, shortly before my graduation from Thompson Rivers University's social-work program, the reporter portrayed me as "a climber of a Mayan temple." He said I had been climbing pyramids since the day I was born.

... My portrayal in the story made me feel everyone was placing expectations on me and I had to accomplish them. I could have inspired other people or I could have made them feel they were not capable of accomplishing the same. (On the other hand, sometimes I feel as though I have climbed many mountains, so it is a bit of a contradiction.)

At other points in my life, such as when I was featured in an article in the Elliot Lake Standard, I have been portrayed with pity as well as having superhero status: "Though bound to a wheelchair, unable to move her limbs, her voice silenced by a severe form of cerebral palsy."

When I see myself portrayed this way, I feel uncomfortable because I do not want people to feel sorry for me. I do not feel mentioning my disabilities was necessary. By stating I was wheelchair-bound, the reporter made it sound as though I'm not able to participate in daily activities.

This kind of stereotyping is no mere question of word choice. It's true that words and phrases such as wheelchair-bound and silenced certainly perpetuate the stereotype of Coriale as a victim, who is lacking in agency and ability. Simply changing those terms for more active ones (maybe re-casting the quoted sentence as "Though, owing to her cerebral palsy, she uses a wheelchair and [whatever assistive technology she may use to communicate], ... ") wouldn't repair the conceptual problems with representing a thinking person who has a list of accomplishments and (presumably) setbacks; has ideas, hopes, and dreams; has an identity that may encompass her disability but is unlikely to be defined solely by that (any more than, say, my identity is defined solely by my left-handedness or inability to do higher mathematics). Start thinking of people as, you know, people, and it becomes far more difficult to reduce them to clichés.

Coriale gives some really solid advice, both at the word-and-phrase level and at substantive story-level:

  • Use active language that puts the disabled person in control of what they do. Use person-first language (person with a disability/with cerebral palsy/with muscular dystrophy/etc.). Make the condition something the person has or lives with rather than the sum of their existence. Replace verbs that indicate passivity (not always passive verbs) with those that indicate action and agency—a person may use a wheelchair, rather than being confined to it, for example.
  • Mention disability and medical details only when they're relevant. This is a big one for me: think about which story you are telling and why you are telling it. Are you discussing barriers to participation for Deaf people in political discourse? Then, yes, it might be relevant that the activist you quote is Deaf. Are you telling a story about quilting? It may not be relevant that a champion quilter uses a wheelchair. As for medical details, dude, those are personal. There are times it makes sense to mention them, but they shouldn't be gratuitous fodder for pity.
  • Get it right. I did not know this, but apparently many journalists don't bother to check in with the person they're talking about when they mention a person's disability. So they misrepresent. Which is just not very respectful. People are individuals, not medical statistics. Just because Google tells you that autistic people have trouble making friends, you can't say that the autistic person you are profiling is friendless or even that they have trouble making friends. It may not be true.
Needless to say, I'm adding Coriale's article to my required reading list for students.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Witch Editing Skool

Because it's come up a few times in comments to Becoming an Editor and in conversation, I'm putting this disclaimer in a separate post.

The question in question is some variant on "Should I go to Ryerson or George Brown?"*

The answer is "I don't know."

The Certificate in Publishing is offered through Continuing Studies at Ryerson University. It's a comprehensive look at publishing in Canada, with a discernable bias towards trade- and scholarly book publishing. I took several courses there, and I know several of the instructors—they're all professionals I hold in high esteem.

The Certificate in Editing at George Brown College offered through the Continuing Education at George Brown, and focuses on as many different fields and media as the instructors can manage. It is less book-focused, and does not offer courses in publishing per se. I am one of the instructors there, at the moment (full disclosure!), and I have nothing ill to say of my colleagues.

Because I really do respect and esteem people who teach in both programs, I'm not going to say much more about either of them.

In Toronto, Centennial College and Humber College also offer programs in publishing. I know editors who have attended Centennial and the only reason I don't often recommend the Centennial program is that it is a full-time program, and most of the people I meet are not in a position to attend school full-time. I don't know anyone who has attended Humber, so I really can't say much about the program there at all.

Which program is right for you depends on your goals, timeline, budget, circumstances, and personality. I suggest you take the time to compare the calendars and attend the information sessions for each program, talk with instructors about the program of study, and make your own decision. Do bear in mind that there is no one single path to a career in the field, and that there is no clear path from wherever you are now to the career you want. Keep taking steps to get yourself closer to whatever your goal is, keep improving your skills, keep learning about the industry, and accept that certain paths are narrower and rockier than others.

*If you're not living in Toronto, then you can't take editing at George Brown College, and I have even less experience of editing courses and programs offered outside of Toronto.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Horrible Sign of the Times.

My heart is breaking, and some of my cherished dreams are dying:

Oxford closes Canadian dictionary division

TORONTO - The Oxford University Press has laid off all employees at its Canadian dictionary division in Toronto, shutting down the department due to "changing market conditions," according to a statement released Wednesday. David Stover, the president of the Canadian branch, said the closure will allow the company to refocus its publishing mandate as online sources become more popular than hard-copied dictionaries.

"There's no doubt there is an overall secular decline in print dictionaries, not only in Canada but worldwide," he said from the company's Toronto headquarters. "We remain the market leader but there is a definite downward trend of print dictionaries and a definite upward trend of in the use of online sources, many of which are free to users." ...

"The dictionary program will continue," he said. "In fact, we are investigating new opportunities for print and online reference publishing in various areas, and we are hoping with the restructuring can make those possibilities for viable for us."

The production of future Canadian Oxford dictionaries will be outsourced to freelance editors now that the company has dismissed the two full-time employees and two part-time employees in the dictionary division.

The CanOx, created in 1991, has become a mainstay of Canadian publishing and lexicography. Since the demise of the Nelson Canadian Dictionary, CanOx has been the go-to for Canadian spelling: doughnut, traveller, labour, cheque.

I know there are some excellent freelance editors, but I really don't understand how a freelancer, working offsite, on a project-by-project basis can do the kind of ongoing lexical monitoring and tracking of usage and spelling and linguistic trends that a lexicographer and editor working with the full resources of a company that has made dictionaries for over a hundred years can.

My heart goes out to Katherine Barber, and the other three former OUP employees.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


A friend asked about how to punctuate with quotations, and since I'm pretty happy with the examples I came up with, I'm sharing them here. As always, comments and corrections are welcome. Also, as always, the OWL at Purdue has done it first and better.

We use quotation marks to enclose direct quotations—things other people (who may be published, real, historical, or imaginary) have said. In North America, we use double quotation marks to enclose quotations or speech:

"I know I'm doing a few things wrong," wrote the original poster.
Lady Winterspoon began her letter. "Dear Mr. Rumpole," she wrote. She stared at the paper. She sharpened her pen. "I hope this finds you well." In novels, heroines separated from their suitors always filled sheets of paper. She wondered how they did it.
"Of course," said Lady Winterspoon to herself, "In novels, the heroine herself is the creation of a gifted author. Of course she can write pages and pages."

We don't enclose indirect quotations—paraphrases often introduced by that—in quotation marks:
The original poster wrote that he knew he was doing a few things wrong.

Lady Winterspoon remarked to herself that the heroines of novels were often the creations of a gifted author, so it stood to reason that they would be able to fill pages, writing to their suitors.

Enclose all punctuation that belongs with the quoted material. If the quote ends with a period, comma, question mark, exclamation mark, or semi-colon, these marks go inside the quotes.
"Blast!" said Lord Vrul, "Does anyone have a spare battery?"

His subordinates shook their cephalod appendages, until the most junior member of his squad extended a pseudopod.

"Mine has a charge, your Worship," he said.

If the quotation begins mid-sentence, then you don't need to use a capital letter:
Mr. Rumpole had said that he would be gone "months, perhaps years, on a mission so secret" that he should not have even mentioned it to her.

The principle that the quotation marks enclose original the words and punctuation of the speaker or writer being quoted is pretty straightforward. Writers (like me) can get muddled when quotes are interrupted.

When the quoted sentence is interrupted, close the quotes around the interruption, but do not begin the second part with a capital letter:

"I know," continued Lady Winterspoon, "that you will not receive this letter for weeks, or perhaps even months, but I hope that, having received it, you will know that I hold you in my thoughts and heart." She stopped, again. She certainly hoped she would hold Mr. Rumpole faithfully in her heart, but she did not know when she would next see him. Much might happen in a young lady's year, especially when that year would bring her first London Season.

For quoted material inside a quotation, use single quotation marks (inverted commas) to set of the interior quoted material:
Mr. Rumpole folded the missive, regretfully. "She writes 'I will hold you in my thoughts and heart' but how can she know her heart," he mused, musingly.

I find that if I remember that quoted material interrupts a sentence, and may complete it, I can avoid most of the perils of mispunctuation.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Were it Indeed a Subjunctive ...

Claudette Reed-Upton's Notes on the Practical Subjunctive is an excellent look at the use of the subjunctive—the verb form that "expresses what you might call wishful thinking"—and I recommend it highly.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Language of Oppression, Language of Respect, and the Etiquette of Written Prose

Part of an ongoing series of musings about language and oppression, and bias-free* language (or, as I prefer, affirmative language or language of respect).

At the beginning of the semester, one of the students in my Grammar for Writers and Editors class asked me whether we were going to discuss "politically correct language" in the course. I checked the outline, and replied, "I tend to prefer the term 'bias-free' language, or even 'language of respect,' and if you take a look at the outline, you'll see that we're going to cover the topic late in the term, after we've covered most of the structural grammar stuff."

Many class members rolled their eyes or laughed at my substitution of "bias-free language" or "language of respect" for her more loaded "politically correct language." So, when I introduced the topic a couple of classes ago, I started with a discussion of connotative values of words and terms, and how our word choice can betray our assumptions. I explained that I prefer the terms "bias-free language," or "language of respect" to "politically correct language," because the latter implies that we're choosing terms merely to be politic—to placate certain interest groups—rather than from any interest in actually ridding our language of terminology that reflects bias and prejudice, and choosing language that reflects a certain level of respect for everyone.

Frequently, discussions of bias-free language in the context of professional writing and editing** focus on words. We try to find words that won't offend—say "flight attendant," rather than "stewardess"; find out whether someone or some group prefer to be referred to as "black," or as "African-Canadian" or as "of African descent" (should it be necessary to mention that person's or group's race or skin-colour at all); when discussing First Nations and Aboriginal people, whenever possible refer to the specific Nation or band to which the individual belongs, and if that's not possible, because you're talking about a number of people of different First Nations or a group that contains Inuit and Métis people, check whether "Native" is okay. Be specific, be precise, and, whenever possible check with the people about whom you are writing, to make sure you're using the words by which they like to be named.

This is a good start, but I think it's only a start. Also, most of my students already knew this. So I wanted to discuss how our language reflects our attitudes, and how examining our attitudes makes it easier to avoid linguistic gaffes. I wanted to discuss how important it is to examine the assumptions that our language betrays, in full knowledge that we are all prey to some assumptions and prejudices. How, in attempting to avoid oppressive language, we need to have some awareness of how language reflects oppressive attitudes—once you recognize the attitudes, it becomes much easier to consider (or look up) less loaded, less oppressive, and more inclusive words and phrases.

So I gave some examples of gaffes in writing that might alienate a reader, and certainly betrayed prejudice on the part of the writer. Here are a few—I had more in class, covering other thoughtless ways in which people show other prejudices (I'm collecting these, so if you have any good examples, please do feel free to send them to me):

Example 1
May Adopted Children Benefit Receive Benefits From My Insurance Policy?
If you have legally adopted children, they are eligible for the same benefits as your natural children under terms of the policy.
From a FAQ on a life-insurance policy

Example 2
The panel on Industry–Community Relations included three professionals, four blue-collar workers, and two women.
Based on Amy Einsohn,The Copyeditor's Handbook, page 409 (University of California Press, 2000)

Example 3
From the day of their birth, all children long for intimacy and affection from their mother and father.
From an early draft of a chapter on sexual decision-making in a health textbook for grade 9.

Example 4
Encourage students to bring in other ethnic recipes and explore how ratios work in these recipes.
From a teacher's guide for a math textbook.

Example 5
Invite a Native seamstress from the community to discuss making Native clothes without patterns with students.

Example 6
Doctors and their wives are invited to the Christmas party.
Based on Amy Einsohn,The Copyeditor's Handbook, page 406.

In most of these examples, the individual words are more or less fine. And it's pretty clear that the authors are well-intentioned. Except for the author of first example (which is admittedly, a weird one, and not one usually found in glossaries of bias-free language), none of these authors has used words that are themselves objectionable. Yet each of these snippets shows us something about how the author sees the world, what the author defines as "normal," or who the author is including in (or excluding from) the writing.

Is adoption really "unnatural," as the juxtaposition of "adopted child" and "natural child" would suggest? What does that suggest about how the author of Example 1 views families, adoption, and adoptees?

Is it impossible for women to be professionals or to work in trades? Why does Example 2 juxtapose "professional" and "blue collar," and what contribution did the apparently unemployed women make to the panel? In other words, how are the class distinctions relevant to the topic at hand, and are women really an entirely separate class, with entirely homogeneous concerns? Did these women have no professions or trades of their own (and here the class digressed into a discussion of whether it was sexist or not to call them homemakers, until someone asked whether we knew the women were homemakers—which of course we didn't.)

Do babies really want affection only from their mothers and fathers, or will they take it from whoever offers it—biological parents (mothers, fathers, and however many of each are available), grandparents, non-parental caregivers, older siblings?

What the heck does "ethnic" mean when you apply it to a recipe, and who is ethnic, anyway? In my family, pasta is a pretty normal food, and latkes are not. Does that mean that I'm practising ethnic cookery when I make latkes? What about curry? Funnel cakes? Bannock? Is "ethnic" simply a politically-correct way of saying "not what my family does"?

In which First Nations or Inuit tradition are clothes made without patterns? All of them? Some of them? Which clothes are we discussing? Who makes these clothes—are all those who preserve this tradition of garment-making female? In order to make the point (which was about ratios and geometry), do we need to tokenize Native people thus, or can we suggest that any garment-making or textile-working will show an application of the skill? Does every community in the province in which this textbook will be adopted have Native seamstresses handy, just waiting to be invited into schools? (Seamstress, incidentally, is, indeed, an inherently gendered word that's really difficult to write around. De-gender it and you get sewer. Tailor doesn't mean the same thing. There's no graceful single word that will get you what you want, so if I have to use it in a bias-free context, I generally go very vague and use a lot more words: "garment-maker," "practitioner of textile- or fibre-arts, such as garment making, theatrical costuming, quilting, or other type of sewing." It's awkward and graceless, but in these contexts I think that's preferable to promoting certain stereotypes. But (as I often do) I digress.) The authors clearly want to include First Nations lore from the province in which the textbook will be used in their coverage of the curriculum, but are they really thinking through the implications of this sort of "inclusion," or are they simply looking for any way to get Native Stuff into the material?

The class was with me, until we came to Example 6. Oh, they cottoned immediately onto the fact that many doctors are women. They suggested that "wives" be changed to "spouses," then someone commented that, really, there was no need to specify the relationship, and suggested changing "spouses" to "partners." Someone else disagreed with "partner," because of the businesslike sound, but agreed that the doctors in question should feel free to bring someone to whom they might not be married, and suggested "guest." (Nobody suggested that the doctors might want to bring more than one guest; I wasn't going to go there.) Then someone noticed the Christmas in the Christmas party, and suggested that it be changed to "holiday party" or "year-end party."

And just like that, things went off the rails. Some of the women in the class (most of them older than me), thought that we should call a spade a spade. It's Christmas, and it's a Christmas party. So I asked whether this meant that invites should go only to employees of nominally Christian faith, or whether we should ask employees of different faiths to celebrate Christian holidays, without ever providing space to them to celebrate their own holidays. Well, we can't celebrate everyone's holidays. So should we cancel the party, or nod to the fact that not everyone celebrates the same holiday in December, and make it easier for people to feel more comfortable about attending? Or move it to February, and call it a Winter-Blahs Party?

It's weird what people consider inviolable.

From this digression, the same women proceeded to ask me if I didn't think something was lost when we all went "politically correct," especially about Christmas. They themselves don't like it when they are wished "Happy Holidays" by people in stores.

And this is where it became clear to me that my students had lost sight of the point of the class, and of the exercise. Because my class is a class on editing and writing—not a guide to bias-free speech and action (I'm really not qualified to teach such a class). I tried hard to remind them that we were discussing written language, and that my goal was not to tell them, individually, what they are or aren't permitted to say in their daily goings-on. My job was to help them learn to avoid inadvertently writing in ways that will alienate a portion of their readership, and spot and correct, or at least point out, such writing when clients or employers inadvertently commit it. If, having examined their own preferences, they want to wish people who may or may not celebrate the day a merry Christmas, that's none of my concern.

What I forgot to do, I think, was to remind them of what I'd said way back at the beginning of the term, about what we were learning in my Grammar for Editors class: the formal etiquette of written prose.*** If we are being polite, we do not wish to unwittingly alienate our readers. We may choose, for whatever reason, to intentionally alienate a portion of the readership; certain writers have made careers out of alienating people, quite deliberately. But we wish to pay attention to the connotations inherent in our word choice, and to the way our language may exclude some readers, and not assume, uncharitably, that these readers are merely being "picky," or "difficult," but instead assume the burden of ensuring that our prose is welcoming and gracious to our desired readers. In order to be truly gracious in our writing, we need not the "do's" and "don'ts" of politically-correct jargon, but a sensitivity to our readers' backgrounds and experiences, and a very real desire to respect and include those. Once you do that, the words come a great deal more easily.

* Okay, granted, it's not really bias-free. Using a group's chosen language to speak about that group does indeed betoken at least some sympathy for that group, and some respect for the group's goals, which is, in itself, a bias. Nothing's ever really bias-free. I prefer "language of respect," generally, but the trade-term seems to be bias-free.

** Such as this one, at Rainbow Associates, which is a rather decent example of the type, and contains a useful word list:
The bottom line is that some of your readers (potential customers) will be offended by certain terms, and who wants to turn off a customer? Most of us have no desire to offend anyone, but we occasionally do it unintentionally. Most important is to avoid the most offensive terms. We all know what some of these are, but other examples might involve some relearning. If you grew up – as most people did -- hearing some of these words and phrases without realizing their impact for other people, now is the time to start hearing them in a new way.

*** A term I totally ganked from Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct), who uses it, somewhat pejoratively, to describe what prescriptive grammarians and writers of grammar books examine. When we're looking at the rules of grammar for editorial work, we need to know as much about what people think is "correct" as possible. We need to know the rules for everyday use, and the rules for very formal use, and when each set of rules applies. We need to know the linguistic equivalent of when to remove your gloves, and when to eat with your fingers. (Hint: Do the former when you expect to have to do the latter). We're not, in a grammar for editors class, discussing whether we think infinitives should be split; it is enough to know that some abhore a split infinitive, and that, should we be in their company (or employ), it were best not to split the infinitives, whatever our views on the matter of infinitives, split or intact.