What Is Inclusive Writing, and Why Does It Matter?
Inclusive writing is prose that recognizes diversity, honors differences, avoids assumptions, and creates equitable experiences and opportunities for your readers.
As a baseline, when content is inclusive, it normalizes readers’ identities or circumstances and prevents them from feeling left out. Beyond that, it actively empowers your readers. When people see or read about people with their identities or circumstances, they take on the belief that what that person is doing is possible for them too.
Inclusive content also benefits everyone. The Curb-Cut Effect states that when you design something for increased accessibility, those features can benefit a larger group of people than the features were intended for.
The Curb-Cut Effect is named for the curb cut: the sloped ramp that adjoins a sidewalk with the adjacent street. It was initially designed to enable wheelchair users to travel safely across city blocks. As curb cuts became more commonplace, it became clear that many people not using wheelchairs benefited from curb cuts. People pushing strollers, using a cane or crutches, travelers wheeling luggage, skateboarders, and even runners have all benefited from curb cuts.
Applied to content, it could be the organization of your article — bolded phrases and organized headers help readers with ADHD maintain focus. Or high-contrast graphics that make your content more accessible for people with visual disability. Both of these things help readers without ADHD or visual disability to get more out of your article.
1. Inclusivity Is More Than the Words You Use
It’s also the concepts you reference, people you feature, and recommendations you make. When you keep these things in mind, you go beyond memorizing the right words and proactively empathize with your readers.
The Concepts You Reference
Often when we’re writing, we offer readers relatable examples to illustrate a point. We might mention some perceived “norms” of human experience like situations at work, family and relationships, schooling, going to the gym, or catching up with friends. It’s natural for us to make assumptions based on what’s been normalized in our society or social circles, so it’s important to check for bias in the concepts we reference.
For example, maybe you’re writing an article for HR professionals to create better parental leave policies. The broader concept of family accounts for same-gender couples, queer relationships, single parents, divorce, death of a parent, step-parents, adoption, surrogacy, fostering, and co-parenting. So an article about parental leave should keep this breadth of definition of family in mind.
Or, if you put the reader in a hypothetical example of catching up with a friend, you might reference heading to a bar for beers. But many people don’t drink alcohol for a number of reasons: they could be recovering from alcoholism, alcohol could interfere with medications they take, it might not align with their religious views, they could be pregnant, or any other personal reason. So it’s better to go for a more inclusive example like getting lunch with a friend instead.
Concepts to check your bias on include: religion and holidays, gender identity or expression, relationship paradigms, sexuality, neurodivergence, and physical and mental ability. But the list is really endless. It’s worth reconsidering anything you see as a norm and opting for a more inclusive example.
The People You Feature
By representing a diversity of experiences, you communicate that what you’re depicting is possible for the shared identities or experiences between the people featured and your readers.
Using diverse stock photos communicates that visually. A variety of voices in subject matter experts (SMEs) or featured brands (e.g. Black-founded brands) adds new perspectives to crowded conversations that tend to quote the same people and brands on repeat.
Recommendations You Make
Consider whether the recommendations you make in your article are inclusive of your readers.
Going back to that example of a parental leave policy, you might recommend that your readers create a broader parental leave policy that makes room for fathers’ roles in their children’s lives, adoption, surrogacy, same-gender parents, etc.
If you’re writing about how to create videos for employee onboarding, advise your readers to include things like closed captions, colorblind-friendly visuals, and large text for legibility.
Accessibility of Your Site/Page
Your article can be beautifully inclusive in language, but if it has poor accessibility, some people will miss out on it. Your article will be more accessible with high contrast between text and background, large text, and colorblind-friendly visuals. Add descriptions of photos for folks who can’t see the images but might be using a screen reader.
To include more folks in the experience of your website, consider an accessibility solution like AccessiBe. The product is an add-on to your website that has several preset filters and more than 20 individual modifications to change the content, color, display, and navigation of a website to serve people with visual disability or blindness, ADHD, cognitive disabilities, seizures, and more.
2. Think About Diversity in Relation to the Context of Your Subject
It's difficult to recognize when a voice or representation is absent because you're so used to what you regularly see. So diversity is all the more impactful when you consider it in relation to the topic you’re writing about. Which is to say, you should include people or groups you don't often see represented in the subject about which you're writing.
For example, BIPOC face discrimination at work, and Black and Hispanic folks are underrepresented in tech. So it’s more impactful to quote a Black or Hispanic software engineer as an expert in a tech context. Similarly, if you’re writing an article about fitness or exercise, including people who are fat* in photos or as experts is impactful in a context they’re often not recognized as experts in.
*There’s a movement to reclaim the word “fat” over other terms like “overweight” or “plus size,” which imply an abnormality.
But don’t just use your SMEs to offer perspective about their identities within the subject. Your SMEs are simply experts because of their expertise in the field. Yes, you should include a Black or Hispanic engineer, but that doesn’t mean you should only ask about their experience as a person of color, but about their experience as an engineer. Don’t include an individual’s identity at the expense of their other identities.
3. Source Information From the Communities You’re Representing
When you’re referencing a particular identity, it’s important to consult resources developed by those groups to gain an accurate understanding of their experiences and the language they use to represent themselves. However, it can be taxing for people to defend and explain their identities. So do your research online and read what’s already been written by these communities first.
Ask if you’re not sure, but ask if it’s okay and acknowledge that it can be taxing so you don’t expect them to help you. Consider asking for folks’ opinions in a public place, like your company’s DEI Slack/Microsoft Teams channel (or establish one if you don’t have one already), Reddit, or Facebook ally groups. This allows folks from a particular identity to opt-in to sharing their experiences with less pressure or folks from any identity to share relevant resources they’ve already found.
Commit to Respecting All People
You’ll never create perfectly inclusive content. But a commitment to respecting all people makes a difference. Continue building your skills as an ally. Stay open to feedback, express gratitude for what was shared, and do your best with the resources you have.
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