5 things your editor wants you to know about conscious language

What we publish matters.

Words matter. So much.

As an editor, I’m pretty particular about how to use an em dash or keep your writing concise. But those issues are about style — they’re only skin deep.

Some words have a substantive impact on your audience and the people they interact with. Choosing those words with care, critical thinking and compassion is the art editor Karen Yin coined as “conscious language.”

It isn’t a set of rules, but a mindset and behavior you develop as a writer.

I’ll share five examples below, but the gist, according to Yin’s Conscious Style Guide, is to ask questions as you write, such as:

  • Who’s my audience?

  • What tone and level of formality do I want?

  • What am I trying to achieve?

  • How might history change the impact of my language choices regardless of my intentions?

  • Who’s being excluded?

5 things your editor wants you to know about conscious language

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1.  What you write matters

Here’s why I’m obsessed with conscious language as a writer and editor: What we publish impacts the world. 

This 2019 op ed from Tampa Bay Times editor Ashley Dye is a great discussion of the responsibility journalists have in shaping how we use words and how language affects the way we treat people.

Using inclusive language, even (especially) when it’s not familiar to your audience, can help them learn and get used to it. That’s a powerful gift you can give your community and the world just through the words you choose.

2. Ask sources about their pronouns

Quick grammar refresher: Pronouns are words that substitute for other nouns, like I, you, he, she, they, it and this.

Assuming a source or subject’s pronouns assumes their gender, so always confirm before you write. The easiest way to do it is to ask them directly, “What are your pronouns?”

Or you could figure it out pretty quickly by checking their bio on their website, LinkedIn or an article they’ve published. Lots of people also include their pronouns (like this: she/her) in their social media names and email signatures, so it’s getting easy to avoid assumptions.

3. How to use singular they

Let’s clear up two often conflated conversations about singular they. You can use they:

1. As a pronoun for a person who identifies with a gender other than male or female.

This isn’t a grammatical matter; it’s a human one. If a person’s pronouns are they/them, you refer to them with those pronouns, exactly as you refer to someone who uses she/her or he/him pronouns. No grammatical argument can change who a person is.

The convention is to use the plural form of verbs with singular they, so: They go to school at 8 o’clock, not They goes to school. Some people use themself as a singular reflexive pronoun, but themselves is more common for now.

2. As a pronoun to refer to a hypothetical person or person of unknown gender.

  • Hypothetical: When someone waves to you, it’s polite to wave back to them.

  • Unknown or anonymous gender: When the suspect is found, they’ll be treated fairly.

Here, attempts at grammatical correctness have driven trends over the years.

At some points, it was standard to refer neutrally to a person as he; at some points it was something like s/he or he or she. Now the overwhelming standard is they in these cases. 

For decades, we’ve done that because it’s less clunky than alternatives. With our growing awareness of non-binary genders, we also know they is the most accurate term to include all genders.

The Associated Press Stylebook updated its guidance for singular they in 2017 to “allow” its use in both of these cases — but tons of publications were already using it. Remember you can always write your own exceptions to style guides when the guidance doesn’t meet your publication’s (or audience’s) needs!

4. How to write about race

With a stark recognition in the media of racialized violence in recent years, ignorant white writers like me have quickly picked up on conscious ways to write about race, like:

  • BIPOC: Black, Indigenous and people of color. The term calls out the unique identities and experiences of Black and Indigenous people, moving away from lumping all nonwhite people as “people of color.” The reasons are nuanced (obvs), and Vox explains them well.

  • Black:AP style moved to capitalize Black as a racial, cultural and ethnic term in July 2020 (and is keeping an eye on conventions around how white is capitalized or not in the same contexts).

  • Asian American and African American: Skip the hyphen when referring to anyone’s ethnicity. Better: Based on their preference, refer to a person’s specific ancestry or country of origin, like Filipino American.

  • AAPI: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, refers to about 50 ethnic groups including Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Hawaiian and other ancestries.

There’s so much more! Check out the resources from Conscious Style Guide in “Further Reading” below for a deep dive on writing about race, ethnicity and nationality.

5. How to write about disability

I’m the most ignorant when it comes to writing about disability and people with disabilities, so I won’t preach here. Learn with me by reviewing these basic guidelines from the National Center on Disability and Journalism:

  • Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story and when the diagnosis comes from a reputable source.

  • Use people-first language unless otherwise indicated by the source. [From Dana: That’s “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people.” Get it? People first.]

  • Ask the source how [they] would like to be described. If the source is not available or unable, ask a trusted family member or relevant organization that represents people with disabilities.

  • Avoid made-up words like “diversability” and “handicapable” unless using them in direct quotes or to refer to a movement or organization.

Refer to the Disability Language Style Guide for more guidance anytime you find yourself writing about or using words related to mental and physical health, illness and disabilities.

Your turn!

No way can this cis white lady give you a comprehensive guide to using conscious language. Please add your voice! Which misused or problematic words do you want to see eradicated? Which ignorant mistakes do we need to stop making in writing and media? 

Comments are usually only open to Field Notes subscribers, but I’m opening this thread to everyone so we can create a resource as a community that we can all learn from.

Scroll down to leave your comment below the post!

Further reading

🧡 Conscious Style Guide for Ethnicity, Race + Nationality: Conscious Style Guide, a site devoted to helping writers and editors think critically about using language, shares resources and conversations on writing about ethnicity, race and nationality (including the difference among those terms).

💚 Diversity Style Guide: A project of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University, this site shares guidance from relevant organizations to help writers cover people and communities accurately.

💜 Covering Asia and Asian Americans: This guide from the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) is a comprehensive list of terms and issues you’ll encounter writing about Asia and Asian Americans.

💙 GLAAD Media Reference Guide: Your go-to reference for guidance on covering LGBTQ people, stories and issues.

💛 Editors of Color: A very good way to ensure inclusivity in anything you write? Diversify your editorial team! Editors of Color provides resources to help hire diverse writers and editors, and tap into diverse sources, including the Editors of Color Database and the ah-mazing Database of Diverse Databases.

Next month

Q&A: Can you make a living writing in a small niche?

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