Book review – Ebonye Gussine Wilkins – “Respectful Querying with NUANCE”

10 Jan
Book review – Ebonye Gussine Wilkins – “Respectful Querying with NUANCE”

This book is published by the Editorial Freelancers Association, who are based in America, and I ordered it direct from them. My attention had been drawn to it by a couple of fellow-editors and I thought it would be useful to read and then share about here.

What it says on the back of the book

The blurb on the back summarises the book perfectly:

Editors working with writers of color or marginalized writers have dictated editorial changes that have misrepresented the writers’ voices for far too long. Writers receiving assistance from editors who don’t share their cultural backgrounds or experiences often don’t get the appropriate editorial support because of misunderstandings. Respectful Querying with NUANCE offers a framework that allows editors to continue to provide the necessary guidance while still respecting the author’s voice and encouraging the author to make the manuscript’s final editorial decisions.

Ebonye Gussine Wilkins herself is “a social justice writer, editor, and media activist shaping media through the lens of inclusion” (p. 29) and as such is ideally placed to guide other editors through this process.

What you get in the book

The introduction sets out the author’s stall as someone who is not a gatekeeper or rule-imposer but just wants to “help the writer put forth the best version of their manuscript” (p. v). She moves on to talk about how writers of colour or writers from marginalised communities outnumber editors of colour and from marginalised communities, so there are likely to be occasions when there’s a mismatch between the cultures of the writer and the editor. The editor in this case needs to be extra careful to let the author’s voice shine through and to not seek to suppress evidence of the author’s culture or background in their editing work – especially through their queries.

A query is where the editor puts a comment in the text because they’re not sure what the author intended to put across or needs to make a suggestion. For example, I have used queries recently to check what word someone intended to use when I suspected their voice-to-text software had inserted something a bit odd and, in a sort of backwards version of what this book is talking about, to suggest an author used singular they instead of he/she to avoid gender binary issues in the text. What Wilkins wants editors to do, entirely appropriately, is to take special care when doing this to pay attention to the author’s culture, and not to, for example, smooth out specific cultural terms into more ‘mainstream’ ones they might know and accept more readily themselves, certainly not without thinking about it. The main thing is to empower the author to make decisions on what’s in their own text, and to make sure that the editor’s culture, especially if it’s the dominant culture in the society in which they’re working, doesn’t dominate the author’s own voice.

Wilkins offers a handy framework to do this, based around NUANCE (Notice – Underscore – Accept – Narrow – Consult – Empower). I won’t go into all the details because then I’ll just be parroting the book. If you’re an established editor used to working supportively with writers of different groups to your own, you will probably do this intuitively. If you’re a new editor, or someone who’s feeling a bit challenged by working with someone’s manuscript that is different from your own more commonly held experiences, you’ll find this framework very useful.

My thoughts

I think this is a really good resource, especially for new editors or those needing to come to terms with working with texts that approach issues from or are written from other than their own cultural or personal characteristics. I’ve worked with all sorts of authors for years, and it encouraged and reassured me that I’m on the right tracks with the way I work with clients who are different to me in their backgrounds and lived experiences. The worked examples were useful, and the emphasis on looking things up and checking them with other external sources before assuming they’re incorrect was written in a way that was useful and supportive to the editor. In addition, with more lists and directories available of editors with different cultures and characteristics, I would – and have – directed authors who come to me with very specifically culturally rooted texts to approach an ‘own voices’ editor to work with them, something which may well be more comfortable for both, if they choose to. If they choose to work with me, I’m more confident after reading this short book that I will be able to support and empower them, working with them to make their text represent them and their thoughts as well as it can.



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