Editing by the seat of your conscience

by Laureen Hudson

Practical Content

This past week, an opportunity to do some freelance editing for a press I’ve admired and respected for decades came up. I love this press’s work; I’ve got a sticker of theirs on my laptop, I’ve purchased their titles for myself and for my kids. It’s just a really excellent place, and I’d give an awful lot to have them on my resume, even if it was just for a book or two.

I responded instantly to the request for applications; my challenge was not to fangirl overly much, because as I’ve mentioned, I really, really like this press’s work. The owner offered me an opportunity to take the editing test, and I gleefully set aside a few hours to engage with it.

The chapter was from a book on probability. Straightforward, right? Pretty logical stuff, numbers and formulae. Right up until the point where the example the author used was gendered. I don’t mean a little gendered; I mean ragingly gendered. Men are this, women are that, men have this probability of having this thing happen, women have this probability of this thing happening. And then the exercise, which is to calculate the probability that if you’re communicating with someone, say online, and you can’t tell if they’re male or female, but they say they had this thing happening, what’s the probability you’re communicating to a male?

I sat back from my keyboard, took a few deep breaths, thought about my privilege really, really hard.

You see, I’ve wanted to work with these folks for literally decades. This is a golden opportunity for me. All I have to do is shut up and edit. All I have to do is just do the thing, make the technical make sense, and get the plum that I wanted.

All I have to do is fail to speak up.

Then I leaned over my keyboard, and explained carefully in the marginalia that I could not in good conscience allow this example to pass. The days where binary gender was an acceptable default assumption for generic examples were behind us, and that passage, and that example, would be some version of upsetting, painful, annoying, or triggering, for someone who was nonbinary. That emotional reaction would necessarily impede the reader’s understanding of the underlying mathematics we were trying to explain, and could not be allowed any more than bad grammar or structure could be. I then provided the link to the Conscious Style Guide’s wonderful page on editing for Gender, Sex, + Sexuality, checked my other edits on the chapter, and sent my sample off.

Editors have an obligation. Technical editors, doubly so, to ensure that everyone has equal access to information. It is our job to make complicated material clear, understandable, digestable. It’s impossible to digest information if you’re also dealing with an emotional reaction to the material. If you have to take ten minutes to tamp down your discomfort and get over it, that’s ten minutes of privilege everyone else has over you in interacting with the material. It’s adding unfairness into a system where it doesn’t have to be. It’s making it harder for someone to learn the material, and it’s completely unnecessary.

It also, to a lesser degree of import, reinforces the idea that the default is binary, and that everyone else needs to adapt to that assumption.

I haven’t heard back from them; I wouldn’t expect to until later in the week anyway. I’m pretty sure that raising that point will brand me as a troublemaker, and thank you for applying. Which I am lucky enough at this moment in time to be economically secure enough that losing that job won’t also mean losing meals. I’m pretty sad about the lost opportunity, about the world we live in, and about the battles we face.

But at the same time, I am more determined than ever to encourage my fellow editors to hold this line around conscious editing, and to stand up for equal access to information. I feel like this is our territory to defend, and I feel like that if jobs will be lost in the doing of it, then that’s just what will have to happen. And that push has to come from those of us who have the social and financial cachet to be able to do it.

Literally no one would have known if I’d just passed it through. But that’s the kind of thing that chips away at your soul. I mean, I’m enough of a nerd to ask “What would Captain Sheridan do?” in this situation. J. Michael Straczynski used an entire season arc to reinforce the idea that you must do the right thing especially when there’s no one there to see you do it or give you credit for it.

I don’t know yet if I have the gig or not. And if I don’t, I’ll never know if it’s because they don’t like my editing, or they don’t like my politics. But my surety was not worth my integrity.

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Schrödinger’s Consultant

by Laureen Hudson

Practical Content

Recently, after suggesting a particular content strategy for a client, I was met with some unexpected resistance. I discovered that the client’s subordinate, for whom I’d developed this strategy, was asking my prior clients about my competence, in a fairly unflattering way. I mentioned this to the client, who directed his subordinate to, “go speak directly to her, and be honest.”

The subordinate set a meeting, and then sent me a list of eight questions that were meant to ascertain really, really basic competence in my field. Y’know, this field I’ve been in for three decades.

Had I been younger, more insecure in my mastery, I might have been intimidated. But this is absolutely not my first rodeo in facing the “skeptical white man of a certain age”. So I sat down and wrote a 2,000-word reply to his questions. I billed for my time, naturally, while simultaneously wondering how much faster women in the workforce could get things done if we weren’t constantly having to prove ourselves to men who don’t know as much about what we’re doing as we do.

The meeting came the next day. In it, the subordinate implied that I’d somehow worked my feminine wiles on the client, but that he’d spoken to a peer of his I’d done work for previously, and that peer respected me highly too, so clearly, it must mean that I’d snowed them both somehow.

I laughed, because there’s really nothing else to do.

“But that email …” he continued, “… that was formidable. You know your stuff.”

Thanks for noticing.

When I begin a new engagement, especially a virtual one, I am careful to pepper my conversation with clues that would lead an astute listener to realize that I’m much older than I sound on the phone. My 14-year-old son and I have similar enough voices to fool Siri 100% of the time. I sound like a teenaged California surfer chick, which is what I was, and where I come from. Even when I try to suppress that, it comes through. But if I’m speaking about my historical work engagements in a certain place and time, you’d have to pick up that the voice is giving you inaccurate information.

Those clues sailed right over the subordinate’s head. He only listened to the sound, and totally missed the context. And the deeply hilarious part about that is that in real life, I’m a grey-haired mother of teenagers, which means I get disappeared in the way that older women do in our culture. I am simultaneously too young and too old to respect. Schrödinger’s Consultant.

Do you suppose that, perhaps, there is something fundamentally flawed about how white male businessmen judge the women they encounter in the workplace? Do you suppose that a whole lot of genius is passing unnoticed right under their noses, and that is why they will fail? Do you suppose that those of us who see them and their knee-jerk judgy selves will throw our efforts behind their competitors, intentionally, simply because we’re really, really tired of having to justify our mastery of our field to their mediocrity?

Perhaps. And if we do, they will never see it coming.

The client, when I related the story of the meeting, was quiet for a while. I sat and let him think it through. “I wonder,” he mused, “just what he thought you did to win my admiration?” I let him sit and think on that a little, too. “I think,” he concluded, “that I’m almost as insulted for me as I am for you.”

Good. You totally should be. Because fundamentally, this distrust of female expertise is smarmy, and rooted in the idea that women can only obtain stature venereally. And that is as clear an illustration of how toxic masculinity hurts men as much as it hurts women as is possible to make. My competence was impugned, but so was the client’s integrity.

This is the kind of problem that men must fix, because by definition, women cannot assert their integrity and intelligence in the face of willful ignorance and obliviousness. It’s up to men to help their wayward brethren truly understand the error of their ways. Or they too will start failing competitively for their failure to leverage the expertise of 51% of the workforce, and they will have it coming.

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Listening to Discomfort

by Laureen Hudson

a cup of tea, slice of lemon, and sugar cube

Long ago, I was lucky enough to land the gem of all jobs, an editorialship at Sun Microsystems, handling the java.sun.com and developers.sun.com properties. It was amazingly cool, and I felt like I’d fallen into the best of all possible worlds. Sun, at that time, was innovation-focused, and walking the halls there meant you could run into geniuses of every stripe; truly inspired individuals who were generating magical code. My job was to help them write about it. Truly swoonworthy.

My manager knew I was junior for the role, and assigned a mentor to me, a lovely woman who’d been an editor longer than I’d been alive. Mary Aline was one of those people who glowed slightly, from the sheer radiance of her personality. She was sweet, soft-spoken, and wickedly brilliant from behind her reserved British-style manners. I was absolutely entranced.

She and I met for tea on several occasions, and we would talk about editing, about the power of words spoken and written, about the transition from editing on paper to editing on screens, about etymology and about connotation, about intention and about focus. I feel like those few months basking in her presence elevated my skill more than anything else would or could have.

One day, sitting in my sunny kitchen in Santa Cruz, sipping tea and nibbling on cookies, the conversation lulled slightly while we let our minds soak in the ideas that had been flowing back and forth. She looked out the window into my grassy, overgrown backyard, and commented, “discomfort is a sign that something is wrong. Don’t ignore it.”

I let that settle for a moment, thinking it through from several angles.

“Do you mean,” I asked, “generally, or editorially?”

“Oh, everywhere,” she laughed. “When you read a sentence and something just doesn’t quite… you know, you get stuck on it… always stop and look at that. But for everything else too. Discomfort. It’s a message to be heeded.”

We finished our tea and our cookies, concluded our visit, and just a short while later, she was stepping off a curb, fell, and suffered a traumatic brain injury that ended her editorial career, and brought our visits to a halt. It felt like a light had gone out of my world, and I’ve never found another mentor quite as radiant as she was.

But that piece of advice that day? Has resonated down through the years in all kinds of ways. Our culture, generally, reveres logic over emotion, and elevates rational thought over gut reaction. But when the eminently sensible Mary said “it’s a message to be heeded,” that gave me the permission, if you will, to run with it.

Sometimes, it’s just a phrase that sounds wrong to my inner ear despite not being able to find anything specifically incorrect. Sometimes, it’s a tone of voice a client or a coworker uses that just lands oddly. Sometimes, it’s the feeling that I should take a different path to work, for no particular reason. In every situation, my first impulse is to power through with rational thought, but Mary’s voice in my ear grants me the grace to pause a moment, and listen to that other message, the one that encourages a second, slower, more thoughtful look.

So in her spirit, I encourage you all to remember that discomfort means something is wrong. I encourage you to develop your inner ear, that listens to those messages, in prose or in life, and handles them with grace and prudence.

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