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What is conscious language and how does it help writers?

  • FAQ
Frequently Asked Questions

Conscious language edits help writers choose words that connect with a broad readership.

Which types of words are likely to receive a conscious language query?

Words or descriptions for race and ethnicity, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. Edits may include suggestions for alternate words, or variations to the spelling, capitalization, and hyphenation of these words.

Why connect with readers using conscious language?

Having more information about respectful style and phrasing can help you avoid poor communication:

  • limiting your audience
  • doing harm
  • losing credibility because of bias

Where do conscious language recommendations come from?

Listening to the communities impacted by our words is the most important source of updated language. This listening is ongoing, but has been used to create formal guidance like the resources listed below:

I’ve suggested edits to clients based on the following resources:

  • AP and Chicago style guides. These styles can be somewhat traditional (for example, Chicago avoids using the pronoun they to refer to one person). My clients are free to create a house style based on a mainstream style guide but listing specific exceptions to that style.
  • House styles
  • Conscious Language toolkits for writers and editors, created by editor Crystal Shelley
  • Guidance on accurate spelling of non-English languages published by governments and universities
  • For fiction: the Tumblr Writing With Color

These formal resources might also be relevant to your project:

  • CDC Resources & Style Guides for Framing Health Equity & Avoiding Stigmatizing Language
  • American Psychological Association’s bias-free language guide
  • Diversity Style Guide
  • The National Center on Disability and Journalism’s style guide
  • Conscious Style Guide
  • APA Style’s online resources 
  • The Diversity Style Guide 

Which types of projects receive conscious language edits?

I have talked about conscious language opportunities with clients writing both nonfiction and fiction. It doesn’t matter whether the project needs line editing, copyediting, or proofreading. Conscious language edits are not a separate service, and there is no additional charge.

I am not a conscious language specialist. If you need more support, I am happy to help you connect with someone who knows more about your target audience, or who offers relevant expertise for sensitivity reading. Sensitivity reading is often a good idea for fiction writers that are working to include representation of identities that aren’t their own.

Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, on working with sensitivity readers

Being asked to consider different words sounds uncomfortable.

I hope it feels supportive to learn in a confidential space with someone who is happy to help you practice your positive intentions in these ways:

  • connecting you with more information
  • noticing opportunities to apply it
  • helping you be more consistent
  • explaining the context for suggested changes

I try to make the process as painless as I can for you. When a word or phrase is flagged, I will always share alternative options to help you move forward quickly.

I am also learning. Chances are great that I will also have many opportunities to grow and find better words. I try to bring that awareness to our work together. 

My experience is that it’s easiest to share and receive conscious language edits in writing, so that the editor has space to provide context information for the suggested change, and the writer has time to reflect on this information and decide on their path forward. I am always happy to answer questions during this process if writers need more information.

A practice mindset makes it easier to learn and grow.

As far as I can tell, words are mental habits socialized into us by our broader culture and communities. When we set an intention to choose better words, we may still have some practice ahead of us.

That’s why I approach conscious language conversations as an opportunity to reflect on values, audience, and goals, and then potentially build new habits. My personal story shapes my approach, as I explain in my blog post “Swears and Other Polarizing Language: My Journey to Building Better Word Habits.”

I like working with people who are willing to have a conversation about how their words might impact others. I provide this information to be transparent about my process so you can know what to expect.

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