Challenges Editors Face in the Era of #ownvoices

The stats are clear: the majority of people who work in publishing, including editors, are white.

When I first started out as an author, nobody questioned whether or not someone could write something. I had a series with three protagonists that was sold to a New York publisher. My protagonists? A woman, a man and an Indigenous man. I am neither male nor Indigenous, but nobody questioned my ability to write from those perspectives.

In fact, the only significant editorial change that was ever suggested was that I move the books from Canada to the United States, and that request was made by the agent I had at the time. (Not the agent I have now.)

In recent years, #ownvoices has helped push editors and agents to prioritize works from diverse writers who speak with authority from their perspectives.

This does not mean that men have stopped writing female characters (although some should) or that writers of all races aren’t crossing racial lines with their works. However, what it does mean is that we’re paying more attention to the perspectives presented.

More and more editors are avoiding works with characters that read like a list of stereotypes or that may be offensive or harmful to the people those characters represent.

I speak as both an author and an editor. People in both roles should know that words matter. Sometimes, we don’t clearly convey our meaning, and that’s an error or oversight that we must address and correct.

Sometimes we’re conveying things that are harmful and may not realize it. (There are others who know or who do not care, but that is a separate issue.)

Since being in this role, I have found that one of the most important things I do is listen. And I center my listening on diverse authors.

When I see things that diverse authors identify as harmful, I take note of those things.

It isn’t hard to have a civil conversation and learn. It is worth it to correct your course if you need to, particularly if you care about being inclusive.

That whole conversation started because of this tweet thread:

Dr. Reese is a valued resource who not only analyzes works to determine their accuracy, she educates people about the issues she sees in published works from all writers. (I recommend reading her whole thread and following her on Twitter.)

I have benefited from reading the insights of Dr. Reese and others.

As a white editor, one of the things I am mindful of when I read is whether or not a person other than myself may be offended. It is possible for any of us, including myself, to use language that we may not realize is harmful. A quick Google search will reveal multiple lists of commonly used terms and phrases that have racist origins.

As an imperfect human being who is still learning, I have adopted certain approaches as an editor.

One is that, unless I know the author is from a diverse group, I edit them from the perspective of the majority.

What does this mean? Well, tomorrow there will be an article published here that will use the ‘I’ word. I have no issue with the author’s choice to use this word because they themselves are Indigenous. However, in my exchanges with Indigenous persons, I understand that (unless it is an actual proper name using the ‘I’ word) most find it offensive to be referred to with the ‘I’ word by persons who are not Indigenous.

From my editorial perspective, how an Indigenous person chooses to self refer is addressed one way. How a non-Indigenous person refers to Indigenous persons is addressed another way.

In fiction, there may be contexts where certain language is appropriate, but this will be decided by the context.

Part of determining what language is appropriate involves asking who the writer is. And part is by evaluating the conditions for use.

It isn’t a perfect system, but it is a starting point that is intended to ensure that writers are treated with respect.

It is also intended to ensure that readers feel respected. This does not mean that you cannot portray racism. The hardest thing I have ever had to write was a character who was racist and said things that made me cringe. However, it was also clear in the context that the racism was not acceptable.

Your narrative can say more than you realize. Today, more than ever, readers are picking up on the subtext. And so are editors.

I realize that some authors want to submit their work ‘blind’. They want to be evaluated for the work itself and not based on whether they fit a minority category. That adds to the complexity of this issue and how to approach things as editors. Typically, when I receive open submissions, I simply forward the manuscript and synopsis straight to my kindle and start off reading the manuscript. I do not read the query letter first. This means that I attempt to review the writing.

If the story isn’t making sense to me, then I skip over to the synopsis to see if it looks like it holds together or not.

If there are other issues in the story that are cause for concern, then I read the query letter and see if there is information there that may change my perspective on the content.

I’ll admit I read a manuscript not that long ago that I really enjoyed, except for one thing. The author repeatedly used the ‘I’ word. I had to do a mental shift for it not to be jarring for me. However, there were 2 key factors I noted. One was that the work was set back just far enough in time for it to be more appropriate. And the other factor was that the author is Indigenous.

If they had not been, my response to the work could have been very different. You might think that’s unfair, but words matter. Representation matters. And ensuring safe spaces for all readers and writers matters more than accommodating writers who are lazy, who are racist or sexist, or who do not care about the potential harm that comes from the words they use.