Writing for inclusion: “It does not mean what you think it means”

Poster of the movie "The Princess Bride"

Poster of the movie "The Princess Bride"My daughter is seven and her favorite move is The Princess Bride. We have to help her discern what’s real (or at least possible) and what’s ridiculous or exaggerated for effect. Rodents of Unusual Size – not real. Six-fingered men – extremely rare, but possible (the condition is called hexadactyly).

Her most recent question was about the word blave. Billy Crystal’s character asserted that “to blave” meant to bluff or lie. Miriam-Webster says that’s bogus.

So, she wondered, do writers get to make up words?

Sure. Sometimes authors create new words to make their stories more scrumdiddlyumptious. It’s fun. And it works when the new vocabulary is supported with context.

Businesses and organizations make up words too. Code names for projects linger; acronyms replace product names (and any memory of what they stood for). Over time, an insider vocabulary is created.

Shared language is important for team-building, comradery and even efficiency. But it doesn’t translate well in external communications, and it might alienate people who need your content the most. Non-inclusive writing can make readers feel less important, excluded, irritated, or undervalued.

What can you do?

Developing a thorough backstory for every piece of content is inconceivable. Writers and readers both lack the time and attention span for it. Instead, plan before you write. Make sure you know:

  • Who needs the content
  • How they will consume it
  • Where they are in their journey
  • What they are trying to accomplish

When you understand the readers’ perspective, you can give them information they need, when they need it, in a way they expect it. (You might say, “As they wish.”)

Beware assumptions

Avoid inappropriate assumptions and aim for intentional inclusion. Before you publish, look for blind spots such as:

  • Shorthand, nicknames or jargon that are only used internally
  • Terms your kids or parents wouldn’t intuitively understand
  • Words that have multiple meanings

In addition to jargon and “corporate speak,” watch how you address gender, race, sexual orientation and identity, and accessibility. If a label doesn’t have direct bearing on the content, cut it.

To write for inclusion, also:

  • Use non-specific pronouns (“they” vs. “he” or “she”)
  • Address the reader directly (“you” and “your”)
  • Avoid gendered nouns (“server” vs. “waiter” or “waitress”)
  • Use acceptable labels for race and ethnicity (if you’re not sure, ask)
  • Avoid exclusive labels, especially when discussing sexual identities or orientations

In case you’re wondering how to prevent unintended biases from slipping past well-meaning writers and reviewers, here’s some help: Fast Company compiled a list of empathy and inclusivity tools to test your copy before you hit send.

Follow these tips and you’ll give readers content they can truly love — and that doesn’t happen every day.

This post was written by Melissa Blevins, a writer at Dragonfly Editorial.

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