Boldist - How to Write Inclusive Copy for All: A Guide

A Guide to Writing Inclusive Language and Copy

Last year took us all for a ride, and the beginning of 2021 has hopped on the bandwagon. Between #BlackLivesMatter and Trump’s second impeachment, a few things have become clear. And one of these has been budding for a long time now: the crushing importance of equality and inclusivity.

We’ve covered events like Adweek’s Diversity and Inclusion Summit in the past, but today we’re going to talk about how to bring inclusivity into your writing. Why?

Because the pen is mightier than the sword. And because, sometimes, cliches are cliches for a reason.

When it comes to creating inclusive content, you need to do more than post a piece for national celebrations like Black History Month or International Women’s Day. Instead, you need to write every piece – every blog, social post, newsletter, email, landing page and so on – with inclusiveness in mind. It means being aware of word choice and formatting for accessibility.

It’s also a matter of educating yourself on all the types of people to be conscientious of. You need to understand that inclusivity encompasses race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability, mental health, education level and more.

This is but a taste of the United States’ diversity and a hint of the need for inclusive copy.

Why You Should Write for Inclusivity

The choice is easy when doing the right thing is also the best thing for business. Creating an inclusive environment grows your audience because more people have access to your products, feel welcomed by your brand and you lose fewer people to competitors who do a better job of showing they care.

Partaking in inclusive practices is especially important for user experience (UX) and usability as all people need to be able to use your product.

But being inclusive shouldn’t just be a matter of giving your business a boost. It should be a matter of doing the right thing – of pursuing equality and honesty, preventing microaggressions, promoting diversity and helping all people feel like they belong.

You can see the progress society is making in the evolution of what people consider acceptable and accurate. The AP Stylebook, for example, has made many changes in recent years to encourage inclusive language.

One such change was removing the hyphen from dual-heritage terms like African American and Asian American because it provoked a feeling of inequality or incomplete citizenship. This shows the complexity of writing compassionately as hyphens connect words, but in this context, they conveyed a sense of otherness.

How to Make Your Copy Inclusive

When you start writing, always take a “Global First” perspective to account for cultural diversity. Imagine that anyone from anywhere in the world can and will be reading what you write. In the era of the internet, this isn’t too far from reality.

While there are tools that can help you with specific terminology and concepts (we’ll get into those further down), there are rules to follow when writing your UX copy.

Be Inclusive of Culture, Race, Ethnicity and Nationality

  • Monitor your use of regional phrases and words.
  • Be careful of cultural references that not everyone will understand due to age or geography.
  • Use the respective person’s preferred choice when referring to races, ethnicities and nationalities.

Be Inclusive of Gender, Sex and Sexuality

  • Embrace gender diversity and don’t assume that readers are female or male, heterosexual, cisgender and so on (e.g., use the term partner instead of girlfriend or boyfriend).
  • Stick to gender-neutral pronouns like they.
  • Use gender-neutral job titles (e.g., firefighter instead of fireman).
  • Don’t use gender as a substitute for a trait (e.g., manly for strength).

Be Inclusive of Disabilities

  • Ensure that your copy follows accessible design best practices.
  • Be detailed and add descriptions for hyperlinks for screen reader use.
  • If possible, always ask the respective person(s) preference between identity-first or person-first language, as preferences vary among people and groups. When you can’t ask, using person-first language (e.g. “person with epilepsy” instead of “epileptic person”) is more commonly preferred and is the suggested default by the National Center on Disability and Journalism; however, a few groups, including autistic individuals, prefer to embrace identity-first language. The Disability Language Style Guide is a good place to check when you’re unsure which to use. 
  • For interaction terms or CTAs, focus on what the user accomplishes or will get instead of assuming how they interact (e.g., users who are blind can’t “see more,” and some users with mobile disabilities might not “click here”).
  • Avoid ableist language (e.g., dumb or lame).
  • Include accurate, detailed alt text for accessibility.

Be Inclusive of Mental Health Challenges

  • Don’t refer to mental health challenges as metaphors for everyday challenges (e.g., saying feeling anxious or depressed when you mean feeling stressed or upset).
  • Don’t use mental health challenges as synonyms (e.g., OCD for meticulous or bipolar for rapidly changing).
  • People-first language is most commonly preferred among individuals with mental health conditions, but always ask when possible.

Be Inclusive of Education and Non-Native Speakers

NOTE: Many of these tips also benefit readers with a mental disability.

  • Improve readability by using shorter sentences, cutting unnecessary words and making paragraphs smaller.
  • Improve comprehension with simpler words and writing at a lower reading level. An 8th-grade reading level or below is ideal. You can use a tool like the Hemingway Editor to check yours.
  • Avoid industry jargon the average person won’t understand.
  • Include a glossary if you use lots of unknown words.
  • For activities, give step-by-step instructions, keep steps simple and provide visual guidance as a backup.

Other Inclusive Writing Tips

  • Educate yourself on relevant industry-specific inclusivity issues (e.g., inclusivity for medical copy).
  • Say exactly what you mean, and don’t use terms that can be used to discriminate or offend (e.g., crazy or dumb).
  • Avoid demeaning euphemisms (e.g., differently-abled, victim or afflicted).
  • Never rely on stereotypes.
  • Avoid offensive humor.
  • Focus your writing on interests over demographics.
  • Make sure that images used represent diversity.
  • Incorporate testimonials from diverse populations.
  • Choose content topics that are inclusive and welcoming of all people.
  • Be inclusive of readers’ different needs and goals by using information architecture that is skimmable, including hierarchies, headers and bullet points.

Helpful Tools for Inclusive Copywriting

Rules for inclusivity continue to update as society becomes more aware of its microaggressions and unwelcoming words. So, as a copy editor, how do you ensure that you’re keeping up with the times or saying the right thing?

One way is to ask, but that’s not always a viable option. You can also look to prominent, inclusive social media figures and see what they’re saying, but that’s not all-encompassing or guaranteed.

The best and easiest option is to use external tools and guidelines that stay current for you. Here are a few of the best:

Textio is a paid tool that edits your work for you in real time. Its focus is on helping you write inclusive and on-brand content.

The Hidden Bias Test
This test reveals your hidden biases towards different groups of people.

GLAAD Media Reference Guide
This guide is a complete sexual orientation glossary and can help you determine whether you’re using gender inclusive language, offensive language or if you’re using terms correctly.

Disability Language Style Guide
This is an inclusive language guide that provides a glossary with guidelines and recommendations for disability inclusion.

Conscious Style Guide
The Conscious Style Guide collects current news and resources on inclusive language for several categories, including age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion and more.

The Diversity Style Guide
This writing guide functions as an all-encompassing search engine for terms related to diversity. Anytime you feel unsure about a word, this is the place to check.

More Than the Written Word

While making your writing inclusive is a huge step forward, you need to do more. Enforcing true diversity and equality requires a deeper look at your business practices and incorporating inclusion initiatives. It’s about the final message you send when everything adds up, and it includes hiring for diversity, the treatment of staff and your company’s brand culture.

So, by all means, drop the gendered pronouns and make your content accessible. We look forward to seeing what else you’ve got.