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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Efficiency, principle and gender-neutrality in content writing...

I don't want to invite forty million posts from those who disagree with me about the significance of gender-biased language and discourse. If you are one who feels that our language choices have no impact on the nature of our social structure and believes that there is no compelling reason to monitor our linguistic choices in an effort to avoid bias, I would simply invite you to examine the compelling academic research on the subject carefully. Personally, I find that work far more persuasive than most of the "anti-PC" arguments that tend to mock the significance of individual language alterations rather than examining the way words create our world.

In any case, that's what I don't want--an argument. Instead, I want to talk about how even I, a staunch believer in gender-neutral language, can consider taking the more convenient, yet sexist, route when writing web content.

One key component to operating as a successful content writer is speed. You need to be a quick writer, a haul-ass typist, and perfectly willing to "kill your babies" without a second thought while you push forward. Generally, you don't have time to write, re-write, edit and re-write again. Instead, you have to make quick decisions in order to construct quality content on a deadline.

Despite a longstanding belief in gender-neutral language, it can still be a bit more time-consuming to compose a readable sentence that avoids common biased pitfalls. This is especially true when you are also working with a predetermined keyword and density requirements. Writing SEO copy already demands some compromise of the artistic process inherent to writing, and those limitations can make writing quickly difficult as it is.

As a writer, I will occasionally find myself in a difficult spot with respect to sexist language. Let's pretend my keyword is "insurance agent" and I am in the middle of a 20 article project. As I write, the following sentence comes out...

"If you ask the insurance agent for advice, he or she will gladly supply you with his or her opinion."

I have no idea why I would write that sentence, but this is just a hypothetical...

OK, let's be honest. It doesn't read well at all. Fortunately, we have options. We could use a "he/she" and "his/her" in order to shorten the sentence and remove the "or's." Unfortunately, that may actually make things harder to read and really doesn't do a great deal to improve the situation.

We could get rid of either or both of the doubled-up pronouns and use "their" as a replacement. This tends to mock the sound of colloquial spoken English, but tends to look amateurish in print and is grammatically unsound.

We could strike a blow for equality and remove the "he" and "his." That makes for a great sentence, but can also be confusing, particularly if no individual agent has been identified in the article. Whereas "he" and "his" may be at least partially understood as generic, "she" and "her" probably won't be.

We could wriggle away from principle for a moment and default to the old-school "he" and "his" approach. For those of us who dislike sexist language, this is problematic. However, it is efficient. Very efficient. A few taps of the left arrow and the backspace key instantly solves our problem.

We could also rewrite the sentence from scratch, finding a way to construct it without involving gendered pronouns of any sort. This is a decent workaround, but remember...Every second counts and you have twenty of these things to write by tomorrow morning and a full slate of household chores that still need to get done tonight. We don't do re-writes unless we must. We make our margin, in large measure, by being speedy.

Maybe as time passes and the avoidance of biased language becomes more common (wishful thinking, perhaps) our seemingly awkward options will become the norm and we won't have to worry about it. Perhaps, in the meantime, it is incumbent upon those who care to force that less-than-beautiful text at our readers' eyes until it does become second nature.

Personally, I detest the idea of compromising personal integrity for the sake of efficiency alone, but the matter of readability is also in the mix.

My solution: Most of the time, I do the rewrite and try to get back into a fast groove again.