What Matter Who’s Speaking (or Editing)?

Several years ago, when I was working in India, I compiled some thoughts on the impact of cultural differences on copyediting, which you can read here. This is a topic I have continued to think about over the years: does where you are located or where you are from shape your editorial decisions? So much of copyediting is about rules and applying them to someone else’s writing, so where does subjectivity play a role?

More recently, while working as a sensitivity reader, I have had a chance to think about these questions again in the context of reviewing textbooks for their implicit cultural, racial, and gender biases. Sensitivity readings have attracted a lot of criticism from various quarters as a form of language policing, but I think that they have their uses and value: for example, while doing a sensitivity read on a microbiology textbook, it struck me as significant that whereas the findings of male scientists dominated the pages, the book did not contain a single mention of even one woman scientist. In this day and age, I find that suprising.

Is this something a copy editor should be worrying about? These days, it seems that the answer is “yes.” A copy editor cannot rewrite a book, but they can flag such discrepancies and biases for the author or publisher to think about. After that, it’s up to the content owner as to whether this is something they want to change or address. One hopes that they will want to reconsider how their books present the history of scientific discoveries and research and that they will appreciate the close attention given to such matters by an editor or sensitivity reader.

We’re human, so biases are inescapable, even unconscious biases in language choice or choices about what information to include and exclude in a piece of writing. The best we can do is to continue to interrogate our biases and choices in an effort to bring a greater level of inclusivity and sensitivity to our writing. Textbooks that implicitly teach college students that scientists are white and male and that the human race is primarily Caucasian should be held to higher standards of scrutiny and review.

The additional lesson to be learned here is that it does matter who is speaking, who is writing, who is reading, and who is editing.

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