How to make your writing more inclusive

Stéphanie Thomson
May 30 · 4 min read

Remember when you were young, and adults would tell you that “sticks and stones might hurt your bones, but names can never hurt you?” Balderdash. Words are incredibly powerful. As content creators, we therefore have a responsibility to use them wisely.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. After all, language and social norms change fast. What might have been a common expression one day can suddenly make you sound at best out of touch, at worst offensive. So how can you stay on top of it? To find out, I spoke with my colleague Leigh Angel, a copy editor who does more than correct dangling participles and split infinitives — she’s a fierce advocate for making content as inclusive as it can be.

What makes content “inclusive” and why is that important?

Inclusive content acknowledges that your readership is made up of all kinds of people. For example, at Think with Google, our audience is marketing professionals, and while that might seem like a niche category, just think of the broad spectrum of people who work in marketing — or could, if our content made them feel welcome. So I try to make sure we’re using language in a way that ensures the door is open to anyone who might want to come inside.

“I try to make sure we’re using language in a way that ensures the door is open to anyone who might want to come inside.”

As for why it’s important, there’s no excuse in 2019 for content marketing, or any marketing, to be exclusive. You have to do more than produce a piece of content for “holidays” like Black History Month, International Women’s Day, and Pride, or toss in the occasional nod to accessibility. We as marketers should be including these audiences — and more — in our everyday content.

What tips do you have for people wanting to make their content marketing more inclusive?

You have to make a conscious choice to consider people who are not like you in your writing and your site design. And then you have to talk to those people and ask them how they want to be represented. We can’t be expected to know all this as individuals, but we can ask people what they need.

For example, one of the recent updates to the AP Stylebook was to remove the hyphen from dual heritage terms, like African American, Asian American, Mexican American, and so on. As a white American, this was not something I was aware was an issue, but to people of multicultural backgrounds, that hyphen was indicative of being the “other.” The AP credits its change to Henry Fuhrmann, retired copy chief and standards editor at the L.A. Times, who writes eloquently about why dropping the hyphen is so important.

Any resources you find yourself using a lot that others might use?

One of the best resources I know for editors, writers, and journalists — or for anyone, really — is the Conscious Style Guide. It’s a comprehensive collection of guidelines and articles covering everything from race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to age, disability, and religion. The Diversity Style Guide is another terrific resource. Organized in alphabetical order, it brings together into one, easy-to-use reference the work of many independent journalism organizations.

Aside from reading and having in-person conversations, I also use Twitter and Instagram to make myself aware of the perspectives of people whose experiences are different from mine. You can learn so much — especially about what not to do or say — just by listening to how people interact, talk about themselves, and share their experiences of living in a world that’s not designed with them in mind.

For example, I learned about alt text back in my blogging days, but I was reminded about its importance for visually impaired people when scrolling through my Instagram feed. It’s such an easy fix that makes a huge impact for a large group of people.

What are some of the most common missteps you see people make?

The most common issues I encounter are culturally appropriative and ableist phrases that have become part of the vernacular, the things people say and write reflexively without thinking those phrases might be hurtful to someone reading.

The best way to fix these kinds of issues is to think about what you’re really trying to say when using words that might cause harm or discomfort to someone. For example, if you come across the word “crazy,” a term that is used frequently but can be off-putting to people with mental illness, think about what that word is standing in for. Chaotic, uncertain, wild, offbeat? Depending on the context, there are lots of words you could use instead.

“Thinking about word choices can go a long way to making people feel included by your content.”

Gendered references is another thing I see, which is why I love singular “they.” It’s hardly controversial anymore, especially among editors, though there are holdouts. It’s so easy to replace “he” with “they” when you’re speaking about a person of unknown gender. And if someone tells you their pronouns (see what I did there?), by all means, use them.

Another easy fix is taking gendered references out of copy altogether. Unless gender is germane to the topic, removing it can make a big difference toward inclusion, especially in topic areas that are traditionally thought of as gendered in our society. For example, if you’re writing about a beauty brand, replacing “women love product X” with “people love product X” allows men, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people who might otherwise feel excluded from the conversation to take part.

Thinking about word choices can go a long way to making people feel included by your content. It can also help us, as content developers, break out of our comfort zones and find new, more creative ways to express ourselves.

Stéphanie Thomson

Written by

Editor at Google. Former staff writer and commissioning editor at World Economic Forum. All opinions own.

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