Megan Stolz Editorial

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5 Ways to Write about People with Respect and Accuracy

So many stories revolve around people. They’re interesting and informative. But because stories about people are about, well, fellow human beings, we need to be careful about writing them with respect and accuracy. Here are five things to keep in mind.

1.    Spell their name correctly

Getting someone’s name right is the easiest way to show respect. Misspelling it is the easiest way to annoy them. Yes, some people have had their name misspelled all their lives (hello, my name is “Megan-No-H, Stolz-Hold-the-Extra-T, Rogers-No-D”). It doesn’t get any less irritating.

Also check diacritical marks. These are things like accents (Renée or Inês), cedillas (François), tildes (Nuñez), and umlauts (Noël). Take the time to find the special character.

Don’t forget that some letters sound similar. Is it Eric or Erik or Eriq? Did you say Hernandes or Hernandez? And some letters, of course, are completely silent: Green vs. Greene, for example.

Luckily, checking name spelling is usually easy. Ask for a business card. Check out their email signature or social media profiles. Google them.

2.    Use preferred pronouns

Pronouns are sometimes not as simple as using he/him/his for men and she/her/hers for women. With the advent of LGBTQ rights, people are becoming more vocal about how they don’t fit the male/female binary and have a specific preference on pronouns.

Have a style policy of using an author or subject’s preferred pronouns. Make it a habit to ask them. It will make a difference to the people you quote and publish, and most of the readers who notice will applaud you. There’s even a movement to include preferred pronouns in email signatures, on social media profiles, and on event name badges for everyone.

If nothing else, please adopt the policy of using singular they. If you’re still fighting this one, you’re behind. I guarantee that the stickler who wrote to you saying that “they is only correct as a plural” unconsciously used singular they while speaking sometime in the last month.

3.    Add demographic information thoughtfully

Ages. Ethnicities. Disabilities. Marital status. Sexuality.

Sometimes, the story requires including this kind of information. I once edited an article about a court reporter who was particularly emotional handling a job that centered on gay rights because he was also gay. That made sense to include because it explained why the job was emotional. I once edited another article that referenced a subject’s children and mentioned that one of them was autistic. I deleted the autism reference because it was unnecessarily “adding color” (at the child’s expense) and had nothing to do with the story itself.

Ask yourself: “Does it matter?” If you’re having a hard time figuring out if it does or not, try it on whatever is the default demographic and see if it makes sense. If a piece about a male CEO’s managing style wouldn’t include whether he’s married or not, don’t include it in the same piece about a female CEO. If you wouldn’t mention that the coach who took the local high school swim team to the state championships is white, then don’t mention it if they’re black.

But here’s the tricky part: unless it adds to the story’s main point.

If the female CEO’s family-friendly policies are influenced by how she and her spouse have juggled work and family, then it might be appropriate to include that detail. If the black swim coach is a positive role model for black students who wouldn’t otherwise see themselves as swimmers, that might be worth mentioning.

Note: When writing about subjects who are trans, unless the subject explicitly tells you it’s okay, do not include their birth name (known as deadnaming) or the fact that they are trans. Doing so is not only disrespectful because it implies they’re not “really” the gender they say they are, but it can also threaten their personal safety.

4.    Take a second look at the main message

There are lots of tired tropes in human-interest stories. Consider inspiration porn, or writing about how remarkable it is that someone with a disability is doing something, especially if the thing itself isn’t very remarkable or the underlying message is “and if they can do it, so can you!”

These kinds of stories aren’t interesting and aren’t adding anything to the overall conversation. If you’re going to share someone’s story, make it count.

5.    Using your resources

There’s a lot that can go wrong with writing about people. Fortunately, there are also a lot of resources out there to make it go right.

How do you prevent making insensitive mistakes? Adopt these practices:

  • Ask them. Directly ask the subject or quoted person if they have a preference, including if there’s information they’d rather withhold or include.

  • Hire a diverse staff. If people from different backgrounds look at a story, it’s more likely that someone will catch problematic language (or imagery) before the piece goes public.

  • Reference themed style guides. Lots of organizations out there have style guides for different demographics. A good place to start is Conscious Style Guide.

Megan Rogers