‘Shaping a Style Guide’ at AlterConf Portland


I was asked to speak at last week’s AlterConf Portland about the process of developing The Responsible Communication Style Guide. It’s a little rough, but I wanted to share the talk I wrote. 

Content warnings: Discussions of abusive language, misgendering, misnaming, sex work

I want to talk to you about the word “literally” for a moment. When I tell you that I am literally freezing, you know I’m cold. But am I actually literally experiencing a concerning drop in my core temperature? Not so much.

Despite my own feelings on the interchangeability of the words “literally” and “figuratively” (and do I ever have some opinions!), the reality is that we haven’t just suddenly agreed to switch the meaning of a word out of nowhere. Different communities use different words in different ways. Language grows and changes to cover new concepts constantly, like how the word “computer” used to refer to a person making calculations, but now refers to a bunch of different types of devices. These changes are routine, through conversation, slang, academic use, memes, translation and literally every other time we communicate. There is a reason English has a reputation for rifling through other languages’ pockets for loose nouns!

Trying to stop the growth of language is like shouting into the wind. Even if it makes you feel better, it’s not effective. And, honestly, most attempts to control language come with a lot of elitist and biased crap. (The history of the word “ain’t” is a basically a primer on classism and language.)

We make plenty of tools to help us write and communicate, from linters to dictionaries. We create tools to make sure we get job titles and other details right. But those tools can be tools of oppression. When a journalist relies on references recommending obsolete, oppressive, or offensive terms as standard, they’re going to use those terms. It’s the easiest option, just like using someone’s deadname is easier than researching and respecting someone’s identity. Their audience will use those terms or approaches, too, because an authority just used them. There’s a ripple effect when we rely on tools created without considering their use and impact.

We can see this in actual examples from actual tools: There’s a particularly awful example that The AP Stylebook updated last year. While “child prostitute” or “teenage prostitute” used to be acceptable under AP style, in 2016 the guide was updated to suggest that writers avoid using the word “prostitute” for anyone under the legal age of consent. That’s because the word “prostitute” implies a sex worker who is “voluntarily trading sex for money” and someone under the age of consent, by definition cannot voluntarily participate in sex in the first place, according to Tom Kent, one of the editors of The AP Stylebook.

The AP Stylebook will definitely have more updates in the future, from new technology terms to updated discussions of sports statistics. In fact, that’s their entire business model: journalists are encouraged to buy a new copy every single year. Most of us only update our copies every couple of years, but we’re used to thinking about at least this one specific tool as something that needs to grow and change with the language it describes.

That assumption of change is really useful when we talk about how to improve the systems and tools we rely on. It provides a framework where we can find ways to do better, ways to update our expectations as we learn, ways to improve our communications. Sometimes it takes more time than we like to make these changes. (It took the Associated Press until 2016 to agree with the rest of us that “internet” shouldn’t be capitalized.) As it happens, though, there’s nothing to stop you from opening up a text doc and writing your own style guide. I’ve been doing that for years, which led me pretty much directly to giving this talk.

Writing about people is hard and I’ve messed up more than once. I’ve learned a lot of what I know at the expense of the people I’ve written about because the tools I relied on were crap in one way or another. I started keeping a pre-publication list of everything I need to double check on every project because I misgendered an interview subject I only knew through email. I made an assumption and pushed publish. A few hours later, I got an incredibly kind email from that person pointing out my error. I apologized, but that wasn’t enough. I never want to make that error again, so I added a step to my workflow to ensure that I’ll do better.

I try to do good work, but I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes in the future. When I do, I’ll apologize and try to find a way to do better. That, as Kronda has told us, is the job.

For me, part of that process has been creating The Responsible Communication Style Guide. Basically, I wanted to take all of my tools and tricks and put them in a reference manual so I could improve my own work. Then I realized that sharing this sort of guide could help a couple of my fellow writers avoid making similar mistakes and that I could do some research to answer some questions I still had.

Then — and this is the most important thing — I realized that writing this style guide by myself would be a huge mistake. Just like the top-down approach at organizations like the Associated Press, writing everything would be a way to guarantee that I got something else wrong. If we want to guarantee that our work is inclusive, thoughtful, and responsible, we need to create it in inclusive, thoughtful, and responsible ways. Sure, I had a list of questions, but I didn’t have useful answers.

But I sure wasn’t going to ask anyone to work on fixing MY writing for free. So I worked with The Recompiler to run a Kickstarter. We met our goal mere hours before our campaign ended, giving us enough money to pay contributors and cover printing costs. That’s basically it. Folks, do not expect to get rich writing style guides.

But we did pay our contributors! That’s one of the pieces of this project that makes me the happiest. One of the most wonderful feelings in the world is to say, hey, you, you’re awesome and you know stuff and would you please take this money right now? I strongly recommend it when you need a serious pick-me-up. Keep this recommendation in mind, though, because I’m about to have some feelings up here.

Usually, I have to talk about my work in a way that will convince everyone in the audience that they should pay for me to keep doing it. But in this room, I see people who not only have done that (thank you!) but who have helped me to do work that I consider important. That makes me feel like I have a certain amount of freedom here. So I want to say a couple of things in conclusion.

I don’t think I’m the right person to have edited this style guide. I’m just a person who had the willingness and the time to do so. Focusing on this work, running a Kickstarter to fund it, and not relying on this book as my main source of income is incredibly privileged. I’ve tried to stay aware of that privilege throughout the process of making The Responsible Communication Style Guide a reality. The most effective strategy I’ve found is paying contributors so that people other than me can afford to work on this project. It’s not a solved problem in any way, though, just like everything else about this project. We had several potential contributors who weren’t able to work on this project because we couldn’t pay enough to make this project a top priority.

I want to acknowledge that I don’t consider The Responsible Communication Style Guide complete. I have lists of improvements to make in upcoming editions, topics we need to add, and experts I need to pay. The first edition is just that. It’s a first iteration to at least give us a starting point to improve upon as we learn more and try new approaches.

Given that we live under capitalism, the standard solution to both of my concerns is more money. I have to admit that I’m not optimistic about either capitalism or getting money for important work right now. Several communities I love are shutting down or scaling back right now because there’s so little cash to be had. Even this conference today is bittersweet because I know there’s only one AlterConf left after this.

For the organizations that have the most money to give, things like diversity and inclusion aren’t a priority. When an inclusivity project can’t raise for $10,000 from an organization that spends that much just on “unisex” t-shirts, there’s something wrong. Sure, there are always organizations looking to buy diversity and inclusivity indulgences, but they don’t put money into it in the long-term.

You’re in this room. You probably already know all of this. But I want to ask you to do something when you go back to work next week. Go ask your employer to spend some money, preferably from outside some poorly-funded D-and-I initiative. Do the same thing next week, and the week after. Look at technical training budgets, continuing education credits, even the budget for holiday parties. Look for ways to move that money into the hands of people doing good work.

  • Helping plan a party? Pick a catering company operated by a person of color.
  • Need CE credits for a professional certification? Check if there are CE trainers for your certification focused on accessibility.
  • Got a technical training budget? Choose the trainers who subsidize community work with technical training.

I’m not asking you to seize the means of production, but I am asking you to redirect the means of production every chance you get. I know that isn’t a particularly inspiring message, but it’s the one I’ve got right now.

On that cheerful note, the last thing I want to do while I’m up here is acknowledging all of the people who have worked on The Responsible Communication Style Guide. I can’t name all of you in the time I have left, but I want to thank Audrey Eschright, our publisher, as well as our contributing editors Stephanie Morillo, Ellen Dash, Heidi Waterhouse, Melissa Chavez, and Anat Moskowitz, along with our designer, Mel Rainsberger. I may have done most of the cat-herding on this project, but there literally would not be a book without these people.