Conscious Language with Crystal Shelley: An interview

Interview by Marta Orellana; copy edited by Patricia Tomaszewski 

As editors, we have a knack for words. We can guide writers to express their thoughts and ideas with more clarity. And we can help to ensure that the language used is free of bias and harm. 

So, being familiar with inclusive and conscious language is an important part of our profession, and Editors BC’s upcoming professional development seminar with Crystal Shelley will help editors become more proficient in identifying potential harm.

Let’s meet our presenter, Crystal Shelley.  

Hello Crystal! Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What are your favourite things to do in your time off? Who are your favourite people? Do you have a favourite place? 

I’d love to! I’m Crystal Shelley, owner of Rabbit with a Red Pen. I’m a fiction editor and authenticity reader who mainly works with independent authors. I live in the state of Utah in the United States.

When I’m not working with words, I’m probably playing a video game, watching a Korean drama or reading. I love to travel and to eat yummy things, especially baked goods, french fries, and Taiwanese food.

You are both a clinical social worker and an editor; how do these two specialties complement each other?

In a broad sense, both social work and editing are about helping people, just in different ways. When I made the switch to editing, I wasn’t expecting the two to complement each other. I thought I’d be leaving social work behind altogether.

Given my focus on conscious language and inclusive representation in media, though, I’ve been able to find a way to integrate social work and editing. I draw on my social work background in a lot of what I talk about.

For example, I gave a presentation on microaggressions in editing for ACES: The Society of Editing in June 2021, and I started the webinar by talking about privilege and oppression. (I’ll admit that I was sweating about that a bit.)

I also showed attendees a social identity exercise I learned during my social work program. I’m grateful I get to celebrate these parts of who I am in what I do.

Can you tell us about your editing journey? How did you get started?

In school, I always enjoyed English classes and prided myself on my spelling and grammar, but I never thought about anything related to them as a career path.

Fast forward to when I was working as a social worker in a memory care community. Someone I was close to was a copy editor and needed beta readers, so they asked me if I was interested. I said yes, and in addition to leaving story-level feedback, I also caught typos, grammatical errors, and consistency issues.

The copy editor said I should consider looking into editing because I had a talent for it. I brushed it off because I didn’t have education or training in anything related to editing or English, but the seed had been planted.

Not long after that, I did some training and felt comfortable enough to try jumping straight into freelance. It probably wasn’t the smartest decision, but it got me to where I am today.  

Throughout your experience, what particular challenges have you come across that have made you realize the importance of conscious and inclusive language?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to be mindful of the language I use because of how it might affect others, especially when it comes to slurs or pretty inflammatory language.

I would sometimes ask people not to use certain terms, at least around me, because I knew how harmful they could be.

At times, they would tease me or roll their eyes, saying that I was being oversensitive or that I was the PC (political correctness) police. I don’t like conflict, so the fact that I even asked them not to use that language around me still surprises me. 

It wasn’t until I stumbled across the Conscious Style Guide that I realized there could be a better term for this rather than political correctness, as well as an entire mindset behind it. What people disparage as “being PC” or “being a snowflake” is what I consider being respectful and intentional.

It was hurtful to be dismissed by peers and coworkers when I raised my concerns about language, and I don’t want readers to feel that way if I have any say in it.

What kind of work do you think still needs to be done to help to eliminate or raise awareness around harmful language?

I think awareness is the biggest hurdle. All of us have knowledge gaps, especially when it comes to language that’s pervasive and ingrained in our everyday lives.

Until we’re made aware of where certain language comes from or how it comes across, we’ll continue using it without thinking twice. Once people understand more about the words they use, many will stop using them, or at least pause to give it some thought. Others don’t, but then they’re making a conscious choice to continue using the language, rather than doing so out of ignorance.

The second hurdle is buy-in. What will help each person understand the impact of their language? Is it that they might be hurting others? That it’ll reflect poorly on them as a person? That they might lose sales or a contract? Knowing what might lead to an aha moment for each person is vital.

To be clear, my goal isn’t to eliminate language or say that people can’t use certain words or phrases. It all depends on how something is used.

You’ve developed toolkits for editors and writers. What or who inspired you to create these resources?

Incorporating conscious language feedback into my editorial work came naturally to me. That’s not to say it’s not challenging or time-consuming by any means, but I’m comfortable doing it.

After doing presentations on conscious language and talking with other editors, I realized that this wasn’t the case for everyone.

I created the toolkit for editors first, with the hope that I could make it easier for all editors to do this important work. I wanted to show editors how it could be done if they were unsure how to, and I wanted to save people’s time, energy, and brainpower.

I then took the editors’ toolkit and repurposed it for writers, knowing that many of them want to be more respectful and inclusive in their writing. 

Do you have any other favourite resources or tips you can share, particularly for editors who are new to the profession? 

My favourite conscious language resource is Conscious Style Guide—no surprise there. It really is the best place to start because there are links to not only articles on specific topics but many different style guides and general resources. I recommend signing up for the free monthly newsletter too.

Other great resources include the American Psychological Association’s bias-free language guide, Diversity Style Guide, and the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s style guide.

Anytime there’s a conversation about mindful or respectful language, there will be resistance. I encourage editors to remember why we flag anything in our editing—because we want the client to be aware of it. We let clients know when something might be an issue so that they can decide whether to keep it or change it. It’s no different when we provide conscious language feedback.

It’s not about censorship or policing. It’s about information and choice. 

What can attendees expect to take away from your seminar?

My seminar will help attendees learn more about the principles of conscious language and inclusive language and how they can be applied to editing.

I’ll share questions that editors can ask themselves as they’re assessing text, specifics on what to look for regarding language and framing, and how to provide feedback to clients. Attendees will also get to practice flagging samples.

My goal is for everyone to feel more comfortable identifying potential harm—both in their editing work and in their own language—and to feel more confident helping clients work through possible issues.

Thank you, Crystal. We look forward to meeting you and learning from you.

Marta Orellana lives in North Vancouver, BC. She is a copy editor, translator, and proofreader, specializing in Web writing and editing as well as academic and technical writing. Marta is also a French Immersion teacher and a polyglot, whose love of language is what has driven her appreciation for the written word.

Patricia Tomaszewski is a writer, editor, and communications professional based in Vancouver. She also has a MSc in neuroscience and has studied dance, yoga, and herbalism. Patricia enjoys leveraging her multidisciplinary background to develop, enhance, and support a wide spectrum of educational and health-related materials, programs, and initiatives. In her free time, Patricia loves hiking in the mountains, playing ultimate frisbee, and being a plant mom.

Image provided by Crystal Shelley

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