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Return to Comma-con: A student perspective on ACES 2016

April 13, 2016 By Katie Antonsson Conferences

This was my second year volunteering at ACES. ACES 2015 left me so hungry for more that I threw my name in the volunteer pile in December.

I was over the moon about the prospect of returning for another year of deeply considered discussion of language and publishing — except this year I was all the wiser for knowing never to bring up the serial comma.

Aces 2016 Conference Editors
A room filled with copy editors at the ACES 2016 conference March 31-April 2 in Portland. (Mark Allen)

ACES 2016 was a different animal altogether from 2015. At least, for me it was. I’ve been in journalism school at USC this year, honing the craft I set out to hone, so the lessons I absorb at ACES take on a wholly different meaning. It’s more than sitting in on panel discussions to glean what I can, it’s participating in those discussions to understand how all of these new ideas and grievances and excitements fit in with my life and my career. Last year, I was thrilled at having discovered this world. This year, I was thrilled at having discovered the conversations happening in that world and that I, too, have a seat at the table.

I tend to write off my obsession with words and clarity as something of an oddity, an obscure obsession. But something clicked for me during ACES2016 weekend; this notion that editors do have the power beyond making writing sound and look good (which is an invaluable power in itself), that we are also the ones setting the way for how discussions on difficult topics are taking shape.

Whether we’re drafting seemingly silly Twitter posts or editing hefty graduate dissertations, there is weight and there is power in every word, power that affects the reader.

Of everything I’ve learned over the three days of the conference, that is the resounding lesson that has stuck: Words, our words, have power. With everything from inclusive language to shifting definitions, editors really are the people shaping the language. They have the ability to empower or to exclude, with just the smallest of decisions (singular “they” comes to mind).

I know these discussions get tense because they’re personal, but they’re necessary discussions. I’m glad they’re happening out in the open. I’ve been discussing singular “they,” gendered language, and bias during happy hours after class, but the ultimate feeling was that someone (an authority in publishing and editing) should do something about it.

I never would have considered that that someone could be, well, me.

It’s a terrifying responsibility — because I know I have years and years of mistakes ahead of me — but it’s also an incredible opportunity. It’s allowing yourself to extend past the notion that “words have power” to “my words have power.” What makes this difficult is how quickly language and the important conversations are changing. It’s a truly impossible task to keep up with it all, but this also opens exciting and challenging new frontiers — for all of us.

In journalism school, we’re told the age-old maxim that journalism is the first draft of history. We have the power to define what that first draft does or does not deem important, does or does not consider true, all with the seemingly simple combination of 26 letters. And when we shape conversations and change minds and offer new perspectives with just 26 letters, doesn’t that make English something akin to magic?

So thank you. Sincerely. ACES 2016 was everything last year was — exhilarating, intellectually stimulating, fun — but it also was empowering. I’m going out into the world, once again, with the knowledge that the work I’m setting out to do matters.  I often get caught up in the minutiae of editing and tend to lose sight of that fact — perhaps we all do.

When it comes down to it, editing is not an obscure obsession or a mere oddity, it’s a crucial factor of how the world communicates and how stories get told. Those stories matter. And there’s nothing more exciting than that.

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