by Sarah Currin, Collaborative Editor
We all know how powerful language can be. Words can hurt or help, clarify or confuse, illuminate or invalidate. They can perpetuate oppressive structures or imagine a better world. Writers, editors, and other wordsmiths need to be particularly conscious of this power. While some style guides promote neutrality in language as a way to mitigate potential harm, the truth is that language is not neutral—every term is a choice, and every phrase has an impact.
It’s important, of course, to make sure that our writing is clear, consistent, and comprehensible, but it’s also important to know that our writing isn’t shutting people out or feeding prejudice. The words we use communicate our norms and ideals, so it stands to reason that we want them to align with our values of diversity and equity. Conscious writers and editors are particularly aware of how norms regarding race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, age, and other elements appear in our language, and they work toward access and inclusion rather than uphold the status quo.
But with language constantly shifting and terminology evolving in real time, how does a writer choose language that uplifts people rather than puts them down? How does an editor know what words a marginalized group may identify with or find offensive? Enter Conscious Style Guide, a resource devoted to answering exactly those types of questions. Its mission is to “help writers and editors think critically about using language—including words, portrayals, framing, and representation—to empower instead of limit.”
Conscious Style Guide was launched in 2015 as the brainchild of Karen Yin, the creator of AP vs. Chicago and the Editors of Color Database and the winner of the 2017 ACES Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing. Yin saw that many writers and editors had the desire to use more equitable, accurate, and up-to-date language but were overwhelmed at the prospect of finding the best resources to do that. She envisioned a singular place where work on “kind, compassionate, mindful, empowering, respectful, and inclusive language” could be brought together for easy perusal. Conscious Style Guide has gone on to be one of Poynter’s top tools for journalists, and it’s recommended by many notable organizations, including NASA, BuzzFeed, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, Mailchimp, the Society of Professional Journalists, and ACES: The Society for Editing. What Conscious Style Guide does is gather media guides from different communities, articles on language evolution, debates about terminology, and more, all to further educate people and bring them into the conversation about conscious language. There is no “one-word-fits-all” glossary; Conscious Style Guide instead invites visitors to learn, construct an educated rationale, and make informed language choices on their own.
This focus on an independent thought process is an intentional and integral part of Conscious Style Guide; conscious language itself, after all, is language “rooted in critical thinking and compassion.” When it comes to conscious language, it’s not so much about using the right words but more about asking the right questions so that we arrive at an answer that is informed by its context. These questions might include the following:
- What audience am I speaking to?
- What tone is best suited to this piece, and how formal do I want to be?
- What is the purpose of my writing?
- How might the impact of my words change over time—no matter what my intentions are?
- Who is being included and who is being excluded by my language choices?
Asking these questions allows us to drill down and find out what really matters in the language we use. You may not get it 100 percent “correct”—indeed, that may sometimes be an impossible goal—but thinking critically about your phrasing and word choice will help put you on a path toward communicating effectively to the widest possible audience.
Some may wonder whether resources like Conscious Style Guide veer too far toward “political correctness” above all things. Choosing language that is inclusive and respectful, however, is about so much more than avoiding offense or telegraphing progressiveness. We know that words can hurt people and strengthen existing prejudices; using sensitive language, then, is an act of care for those who interact with our words. Additionally, focusing on the experiences of people across a variety of identities creates opportunities for their perspectives to shine, leading to stronger writing and a broader, more diverse understanding of the world.
Conscious Style Guide is a resource that anyone who works with words should have in their back pocket. Their monthly newsletter, thoughtful articles, and comprehensive guides to writing to varied and marginalized identities are sure to provide food for thought to anyone interested in conscious language. As writers and editors, we wouldn’t be anywhere without our readers. If we approach our language use with curiosity, humility, empathy, and openness, we can ensure that we’re doing right by them.
Sarah Currin is an editor and freelance publishing professional who is honored to work in Portland, Oregon, on the traditional lands of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Cowlitz bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other tribes living along the Columbia River.
A technical editor by trade, Sarah has a master’s degree in writing and book publishing. They are also a publishing educator teaching book editing at Portland State University. They are currently the cochair of their company’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and they refer to Conscious Style Guide regularly in their work as an editor and a teacher.