Rethinking the Editor/Writer Relationship: Editing for Diverse Writers & Readers

Meeting Notes

(Written notes from the 05/14/18 meeting by Amy McKendry)

Sue Cook made pre-meeting announcements.

Discussion panel: Amanda Vail, moderator; Aaron Burkhalter, editor of Real Change; Marcus Harrison Green, founder and editor of the South Seattle Emerald; Reagan Jackson, writer, journalist at Seattle Globalist.

Question: Recognizing that editors are gatekeepers, how can we use that power for good? How do we handle bias and privilege?

Reagan: Our worldview, our version of what is neutral, will be different from that of others. Gatekeeping can be dangerous when you don’t recognize your own bias.

Question: Why is it important to edit for privilege and bias?

Marcus: Even headlines can be biased.

Aaron: There is free speech and then there is the idea that you can say whatever you want with no consequences. Rules of print newspapers are inherently biased.

Reagan: The legal system has been systemically biased against people of color. [She calls herself an “accidental journalist.” Her editor took the time to value her voice; through his encouragement she became a journalist.]

Marcus: [Tells a story of interviewing a young man and asking him for impressions of his community. The young man couldn’t think of anything good.] “We are the stories that we tell ourselves.”

Amanda: [In addition to journalism,] this also pertains to fiction, comics, other literature.

Question: How do bias and privilege manifest themselves in writing?

Reagan: Our legal system says that we can’t say someone is a murderer without saying “allegedly.” We need to collectively decide how we use the language. Our legal system maintains oppression.

Aaron: It’s important to look at what is missing in a story (often issues of race, class, and equity) and then address them.

Marcus: Sometimes what you leave out is the humanity of someone, that they are a nuanced, complex person. People of color have to yell and scream to be noticed, to be seen as human.

Question: What is the role of an editor?

Reagan: Spelling, grammar. Also, is the writer really saying what they mean to say? An editor pushes a writer to become more clear and focused. An editor is a mirror and a guide—and doesn’t always say “no.”

Aaron: An editor’s job is to put on the goggles of the reader. An editor also needs to think, “When do I need to get out of the way?”

Marcus: The purpose of editing is to bring the best out of the writer.

Question: How do power dynamics affect the editing process?

Reagan: The editing process is a co-creation between the writer and the editor.

Marcus: It’s who controls the purse strings lots of times.

Amanda: It’s the editors who really have the power. It’s good for editors to acknowledge the vulnerability of the writer.

Question: What are some clues that we can catch when we, as editors, are in the way?

Marcus: It’s important to have humility, to listen, to check yourself.

Aaron: Be up front with what you need to work on. Acknowledge your mistakes. Say, “What do you need?” Implicit bias is unconscious. Unfortunately, you often see it after something has gone to print. Have relationships with people who know more than you do about particular issues. Check with them first. Compensate them for their knowledge and time in some way.

Question: As an editor, how can you build a good relationship with writers?

Marcus: Treat people not as commodities but as human beings.

Reagan: Ask a lot of questions. Timeliness [when giving editorial feedback] is helpful. Err on the side of more interaction instead of less—this helps relieve anxiety.

Question: If you encounter biased writing, what can you do?

Aaron: Check with an expert if needed. Then have a conversation with the writer (never fun).

Question: What are some tried and true editing practices that can be detrimental to marginalized groups?

Aaron: Holding fast and true to any style guide.

Marcus: Know your audience.

Reagan: Give longer quotes. So much of the story gets lost.

Question: What can an editor do to support and advocate for marginalized groups?

Marcus: Be educated and attempt to truly learn about communities that are not your own.

Aaron: Work to educate yourself as to your own privilege.

Reagan: Teach writers how to pitch. Help them through the closed gates.

Marcus: Volunteer within these communities. Mentor aspiring writers.

Amanda then asked for questions from the audience.

Reading resources:

• Ijeoma Oluo, author
• bell hooks, author
• When online, diversify away from your Facebook page. Find other sources.
• Use Twitter.
Cultures Connecting does workshops.
• Read the Conscious Style Guide.

Final thoughts:

• It’s really important to have people in your circle who know more than you do about various topics.
• When you make editorial mistakes and then go about correcting them, you are repairing relationships with readers and whole communities.

• You have the opportunity to offer respect.
• Pay it forward. Open doors.
• It’s expensive to reflect deeply on who you are in the world.

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