When I was looking for examples of other editors' websites, I found this “radical copyeditor” who writes about issues they encounter while editing. The description reads:
“The concept of radical copyediting is based on the fact that language is not neutral. Through language we communicate values, norms, and ideals. Words matter: they can be used to harm or to heal; to perpetuate prejudice or imagine a different world; to oppress or to liberate.
"Copyeditors help authors and publishers make sure that the material they put into the world is clear, consistent, and understandable, by way of following grammar rules, dictionaries, style manuals, and other tools. A radical copyeditor does all that and also helps authors and publishers align their words with their values of inclusion, equity, and nonviolence, bringing forward a particular awareness and sensitivity to how norms around race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, age, and other elements show up in our language.
"Radical copyediting helps language live up to its most radical potential—serving the ends of access, inclusion, and liberation, rather than maintaining oppression and the status quo.”
I hope that I was a radical copyeditor in one of my sets of edits this year. I was editing an article on French diplomacy and was discomfited by several of the casual references to French colonial history and the relationship between France and its former colonies. One such reference was to France’s “traditional zone of influence,” which is of course simply where France was a colonial power in the 19th and 20th centuries, although that history was not mentioned. The author elsewhere referred to France’s “privileged relationship” with various French-speaking nations in the global South. Again, those nations are only French-speaking and arguably only part of the “global South” today precisely because of their colonization. Another passage described archeology as a field with a “long-standing proximity to diplomacy,” which, to me, glossed over the fact that many colonizers took artifacts from the places they colonized.
I said something to my contact at the publication, who passed my comments on to the author. The references were changed as follows:
French-speaking developing countries -->
French-speaking former colonies
its traditional zone of influence -->
its traditional zone of influence inherited from the colonial period
And, to the passage on archeology, a sentence was added: “France’s efforts to repatriate to Africa art and cultural artifacts acquired as a result of colonialism fall under science diplomacy applied to cultural heritage.”
One small step towards language that is more inclusive and historically precise!
I was moved when I read this recent series of articles exposing the problems with Arizona’s services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. By itself, the series is already a fine example of investigative journalism, but the authors also commissioned a translation of their work into Plain Language.
For instance, one of the articles is summarized as follows:
Arizona is known as the best state in the nation for people with developmental challenges. But its Division of Developmental Disabilities has turned down thousands of people who seek assistance because of paperwork issues.
Translated into what's called "Plain Language" in another version of the article, that summary became:
Arizona is known as the best state for people with developmental disabilities. But the Division of Developmental Disabilities has told many people they can’t have what they need. Sometimes it’s just because their paperwork is wrong.
Elsewhere, the editors explain (in Plain Language) why they commissioned the translations:
Amy Silverman wrote this story. She lives in Arizona. Amy’s daughter Sophie has Down syndrome. Down syndrome is a kind of developmental disability (DD). Amy knows what it’s like to get help for people with DD because she is trying to get Sophie what she needs. Amy wanted people with DD to be part of making the story. She wanted people with DD to be able to learn from the story. She didn’t want to write a story about people with DD that only people without DD could read. She didn’t think we should write this story how we normally do.
Although writers sometimes need to use a specialized vocabulary, lots of academic writing in particular is needlessly dense, with ideas buried under complicated syntax. But Plain Language shows how making our work easier to understand isn’t just a question of style; it’s a question of equity. To me, the changes made in the ProPublica articles are an example of radical copyediting -- making language more inclusive and using writing as a tool for change. I'll write more about that next time!