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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