Desmond Tutu once said: “Language is very powerful. Language does not describe reality. Language creates the reality that it describes.”
If ever there was a time to heed those words, it’s 2021.
Last year was a reckoning for brands. More than ever, companies put stakes in the ground, embraced social justice, started to acknowledge their shortcomings, and laid the groundwork for policies and steps that will bring them closer to an equitable and inclusive workplace.
It’s no small task. And there’s no finish line.
Editors have always been the language gatekeepers. We’re synonymous with spelling, punctuation and grammar. But beyond the rules of English, 2020 put a bright spotlight on language’s critical role in creating a reality that goes beyond promises and to-do lists.
As more and more companies own up to their own biases, the language they choose to represent their brand is more important than ever. Because Tutu is right: Language creates the reality it describes. It tells people not just who you are, but who you want to be. It communicates where you stand. It opens doors—or closes them. It reaches out to both your customers and your employees—the people who represent your brand and show, not tell, who you are. Like begets like.
Language is a powerful thing. Those deeply ingrained words are phrases are stuck to us like glue. We can teach our mouths not to say them, keep our fingers from typing them, but they can almost never be fully erased. And that means we all have a lot of work to do.
So what’s the first step? It’s time to think like an editor.
You can’t expect people to fix what they don’t know is broken. So how can you expect them to use a common language if you haven’t told them what it is?
Most editors use style guides to keep track of writing preferences. They’re living documents that grow and evolve alongside a brand or publication, so no matter what you’re writing about, it feels and sounds like you. Being more intentional and conscious of your word choices is no different. At Dixon Schwabl, that meant expanding our style guide to include words and phrases we’re embracing (like BIPOC, gender pronouns and even how to talk about COVID) and others we’re striking from our vocabulary.
And then we put that list in front of the entire agency. Some of the things on it were obvious. Others sparked questions that led to great conversations. And that’s the key here: They sparked conversations.
Most editing is done in a bubble. Changes are made, deadlines are flying by and nobody sees the messy in between. Well, it’s time to hit pause and put your mess on full display.
Mistakes will happen as we all learn and grow. And a big part of being more intentional about language is making it clear to your team that some uncomfortable conversations might be coming their way. Where a word might have been quietly changed in the past, we now talk about why it was flagged and how we can do better next time. We communicate, we learn, we do better.
And when you do have those conversations, remember: You’re confronting the word, not the person. Good people sometimes choose bad words. It’s your job to take those words and turn them into opportunities to learn.
I get asked a lot how editors know when to question something or look it up. What makes me think something that looks right might actually be wrong? Basically, we’re superheroes.
When it comes to grammar, I have a pretty good lock on my Spidey-Sense. I might not always know why something is wrong, but I can spot a maybe-wrong a mile away. Being more mindful about your language is no different. You’ll never do harm by looking up a word or phrase. So when something just feels off, go with your gut and get googling.
Here’s a great example: Earlier this year, we reviewed copy that used the word “minorities.” And on the first pass, I let it slide. But when it came around again, something didn’t sit right with me. Was that the right word in context? My brain couldn’t let it go, so I googled “Is minority offensive?” And guess what? Every single result was an argument against using “minority” to describe people of color. So we started the conversation. Editor to account manager, account manager to the client, and back. As an organization committed to addressing their own biases and doing better, the client welcomed the feedback. And in the end, they changed the word to BIPOC, a term that better represents the community they were talking about.
So trust that Spidey-Sense. It’s telling you something is off for a reason.
An intentional language shift is a full-team effort. But you also need people who can help steer the ship. If you have an editor or diversity officer, they’re already equipped to identify harmful language and open the conversation. For us, that also included training in sensitivity reading—a branch of editing (or even just reviewing) that looks specifically for cultural inaccuracies, stereotypes, problematic language, biases and other potentially harmful aspects of your work.
But here’s the catch: Sensitivity readers have to be a part of the community they’re reading for. No exceptions. That means I can be a sensitive reader for copy about women, but I can’t read for the Black community. What I can do, though, is flag copy or images that someone from the Black community should review to ensure their experience is accurately represented.
So when you identify your gatekeepers, make sure they’re comfortable not only calling out biases in your writing but also inviting other voices to the table.
Most people haven’t spent much time in the company of lexicographers, so I’m here to pass along a message: Language is a living, evolving thing. No dictionary will ever be complete. No style guide will ever be marked done. Today’s rules are tomorrow’s changes. (Remember when email had a hyphen?)
The same holds true for your work toward thoughtful, intentional, inclusive language. We’re a country of deep-seated biases and preconceived notions. They won’t be untangled or unlearned in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep making progress. And we’ll have plenty of missteps along the way. No doubt, I’ve made a few in this blog, and as I learn better, I’ll come back here and update them to reflect how I’ve grown.
So make that style guide. But remember: Choosing the right words doesn’t mean making a list of things you can and can’t say. It means building a culture where people begin to understand why (and how) their words matter.
Start having those conversations. Work on knowing when to hit pause and check your biases. Eventually, you’ll start seeing progress. You’ll start building the self-awareness you need to choose the right words without doing harm.
But there is no finish line. Just progress. One word at a time.
We’ve put together a basic style guide that may help you identify which words to use and which to ditch. It’s a resource that’s meant to grow and evolve as your organization learns more about itself and your place in our changing social landscape. GRAB YOUR COPY HERE.
Jen knows that the proof really is in the pudding. Being mindful of the great impact language has is why she is our Senior Editor.