Red Pencil Conference 2019: Access to Learning

SEPTEMBER 5, 2019

By Kyra Freestar

Dear editors,

I am looking forward to September 21 and this year’s Red Pencil Conference—a day for learning new skills and discovering new ideas and approaches to the practice and business of editing. I joined the conference committee with one goal: for everyone who attends the conference—whether it’s their first editing conference or their twentieth—to learn and grow as editors. My focus on the committee is accessibility.

Accessibility can mean many things. Everyone’s needs and experiences are different. In the writing and editing world, plain language is defined as language that allows users to find, understand, and use the information they need. This definition focuses on the end result—it’s about people getting what they need. Along those lines, my current definition of accessibility is an environment that allows each of us to find and use the space we need to participate and to learn. That includes physical, mental, emotional, and even social space.

So this blog post is about what accessibility means to me and why I think accessibility is something we create together, for ourselves and for each other. For our own voice and for others’. (If you’re already on board and need no convincing, skip to the end for some ideas on what you can do to help make this happen.)


You can find specific information about physical access to participating in the Red Pencil Conference 2019 on the conference FAQ page, under the Accessibility tab. This information has been updated! Go read it now!


Why focus on accessibility?

Over the past eight years, I’ve had some health challenges, as have some close family members and friends. I have friends who have gone through chemotherapy and friends who have had major injuries that resulted in ongoing physical disability. I also have friends who have given birth or spent time caring for relatives—experiences that are part of normal life for healthy people, yet often lead to periods of time when physical, mental, and emotional energy is depleted.

In other words, I’ve learned firsthand that each person’s capacity to participate in life’s adventures is different, and for most of us, it is constantly changing. For me, it took this personal experience to start noticing the things that can make life difficult for others and to start doing the work to ensure that an event like the Red Pencil Conference is accessible to as many editors as possible.

Comics Panel Audience Applauds (RP 2017)
Editors applauding a session at the 2017 Red Pencil conference.

This means thinking about physical access and mobility. About visual and auditory access. About fragrance and food sensitivities that make it hard for some people to spend long hours in social settings. About energy levels and overwhelm and social anxieties that have the same effect. And about what makes us feel heard, included, valued, welcome.

I want everyone at the conference to be able to learn and grow. Access to learning is not just about the physical.

What’s privilege got to do with it?

I love editing, partly because of the constant opportunities to learn new things. Yet there are days I learn a lot and days I am too tired, or too preoccupied, or upset, to take in new things. Days when all I can hope to do is slog through the necessary. Fatigue and stress create barriers to learning. Trauma and fear make it difficult for the brain to remember and process new ideas.

Often these barriers are invisible. For instance, you probably can’t tell when you meet me whether I’m having a good day or the kind of day where waiting in line for the restroom exhausts me. And I can’t tell who else might need extra energy—now, today, or every day—to negotiate with the world physically, to prepare mentally, or to continually navigate a culture that considers them “different” and that may, at any point, turn hostile.

Fatigue, stress, trauma, and fear are not distributed equally.

We know that some people face fewer barriers to success than others. Academics and activists call this privilege: something our culture and environment bestows upon us—or doesn’t—based on characteristics we don’t choose, like being born with a certain skin color or expressing a certain gender, sexual orientation, or ability. Science fiction writer John Scalzi calls it one’s difficulty setting: “In the role playing game known as The Real World, ‘Straight White Male’ is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”

At the Red Pencil Conference, however, I suspect that Straight White Female will be the lowest difficulty setting. As a Straight White Female introvert, I find learning and socializing with the Northwest Editors Guild to be a joy. These are my people! I may face challenges in other venues related to being a woman, but I know already that every time I enter a room at the conference, I will be surrounded by people who share not only my love of words, but also my race and gender identity. I bet most will be pretty close to me in age too.

In other words, no matter how fatigued my body is on September 21, 2019, I know that I won’t have to explain my presence in the room, justify my perspective on the world, or maintain constant awareness of the people around me remarking—silently or not—on what they consider “different” about me. This privilege gives me more opportunity to feel welcome, heard, and included, which in turn means I’ll have more energy available for learning and thus more access to all that a conference like Red Pencil offers.

When do you change the font?

Thinking about privilege—in things we’re born to like race, gender, or ability—helps me realize three things:

  • That my experience is different from others’.
  • That others may have challenges I do not and experience forms of discomfort and insecurity that I do not. This includes actual physical harm—which I am not addressing in this post but touch on to remind us all that this too can and does occur.
  • And, finally, that I don’t need to actually understand what someone else is experiencing to respect it.

This is true when I’m dealing with words on paper (or screen) as well as in person: I don’t have to identify with the annual report or YA novel I’m editing. It’s not my book! I do commit to listening to, respecting, and valuing each client’s and each project’s voice and goals.

I actually think I learn more—about editing and about myself—when I find that a challenge than when I find it easy. I learn more when I have to stretch. Of course, I also have to respect myself. I have to calculate my own capacity—often as it changes over the course of the day—to stay present and to reach outside my comfort zone to promote communication (in editing) or shared access to learning (at the conference).

Lunch Nonfiction Group (RP 2017)
Editors at lunch at the 2017 Red Pencil Conference.

In what may be an offbeat analogy, when I’m editing on-screen, I sometimes make the font bigger and rounder so my eyes are more comfortable. I seek rest; I protect myself. Other times I stretch myself by changing the font from the familiar to one that’s less familiar, which helps me assess the text anew. I can switch strategies, or change the font, whenever I need to, reaching and resting as I go.

How do we create accessibility together?

I can’t always know who around me may need more—space, time, energy, safety, support—to access learning and growth. And I can’t always expect myself to be as aware as I’d like, or to know what to do.

As part of my committee responsibilities, I researched accessibility practices at other conferences and events. What follows are a few reminders that I hope will help us both occupy the space we need and make space for others to learn and grow during our time together.  

  • Take the time and space you need to fully participate—or to retreat and recharge.
    • There are no assigned seats or assigned sessions, so build your own conference: choose your sessions, take some time off between or instead of scheduled sessions; even change your mind partway through a session and try a different one.
    • Check out the Nuthatch Retreat Space, take a few deep breaths in the Rose Garden Courtyard, or go for a walk on the Bastyr University grounds or through the forests of Saint Edward State Park across the street from the parking lot.

  • Move mindfully. Be aware and respectful of people around you.
    • Take a middle seat if you can. Say hello to the person next to you. Leave the seats at the front and the sides open for people arriving after you.
    • Stopping to talk to someone? Move to the side and leave space around doorways and down the center of the hallways.

  • Speak mindfully. Be aware and respectful of people around you.
    • Some voices and perspectives are better represented than others in any group. If you notice you’ve been vocalizing regularly, maybe stop and listen a minute. If you rarely speak up, consider adding your voice.

  • Do what you need; ask for what you need.
    • The committee and volunteers are here to help—in advance and on the day of the conference—because we want everyone to be able to learn and grow. Do ask for what will make your day better.

  • Respect others’ requests, but avoid making assumptions about their needs, visible or invisible. Instead, ask what you can do to make someone else’s day better.

Final note: I know that many of you reading this have been working toward accessibility far longer than I have. Please help me out by emailing access@edsguild.org with any requests, concerns, or suggestions. I’m passionate about creating conditions that will help everyone at the conference learn, and doing this work is itself a learning opportunity—for me and, I hope, for all of us.

I plan to revel in all the voices raised at the Red Pencil Conference. Join me?


Carol Fisher Saller speaking at the 2017 Red Pencil conference.
Carol Fisher Saller speaking at the 2017 Red Pencil conference.

The seventh biennial Red Pencil Conference is on Saturday, September 21, 2019, on the campus of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, northeast of Seattle. Register online at www.edsguild.org. For questions about accessibility, email access@edsguild.org. For all other inquiries, email conference@edsguild.org.

Find conference updates on the Guild’s website, Facebook page, LinkedIn page, or Twitter feed. Use the hashtag #EdsGuild2019 to start new conversations!

The 2019 Red Pencil Conference Committee is Polly Zetterberg, Ivonne Ward, Tori Smith, Barbara Mulvey Little, Tina Loucks-Jaret, Erica Akiko Howard, Lea Galanter, and Kyra Freestar.


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Northwest Editors Guild.

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Kyra Freestar
Kyra Freestar

I specialize in editing materials for nonprofits involved in health, education, and social science research. As a partner in Tandem Editing LLC, I offer full editorial services for nonprofit organizations. I have years of experience editing academic writing and for writers whose English is not a first language. I also copyedit and proofread books for independent and traditional publishers.