Usage and Grammar

Q. I am editing a work of historical fiction set in the 1950s in Texas. The author is writing about segregation and racism. She wants to use the language of the times, but I just don’t feel comfortable having so many uses of “ni——s” in the text. (The word is currently spelled out in the text; I’ve redacted it here.) I have advised her that these terms are considered highly offensive by today’s standards and should be used rarely. Instead, she added the term in more places. Any suggestions on how to handle using these terms? Should I use something like the above? Put them in quotations? Italics?

A. Unless you are also the acquiring editor or the publisher of the book, you shouldn’t have to decide this issue alone. (If you are the editor or publisher, then you’d better get comfortable with making these kinds of decisions!) Please ask for guidance. Different houses have different guidelines for the inclusion of offensive language, and fiction often requires its use, especially in historical works. Even so, taste and tact require that it not be used more than is necessary, and if your author is being difficult or unreasonable, you might need to let a higher authority intervene. If the author is under contract, she may be obliged to accept the editing. Where you do allow the language, present it straightforwardly rather than dilute its power by intruding with editorial quotation marks or italics or censored letters.