3 Tips for More Inclusive Writing That Makes Your Readers Feel Welcome

June 11, 2021

minute READ 

Inclusive writing can make our readers feel more welcome.

As Reedsy warns:

“When writing is not inclusive, it can make people of these groups feel excluded, like the writing isn’t for them — and may even cause them to stop consuming that work entirely.”

As a reader, I have certainly had that experience. For instance, when I read a book that was published in the 21st century but assumes it’s okay to use “he” as the standard throughout, I assume it’s okay to ignore the author because “he” can’t be bothered to write in a way that doesn’t exclude more than half of humanity. 

If the book is really good, I will still read it but if I’m already on the fence about the book, non-inclusive language will often lose me as a reader.

If you this is extreme, let me share 3 quick points: 

  • As a reader, we don’t owe a writer our attention. They have to win us over, not the other way around. If we don’t enjoy a book and we’re not getting something out of it, why bother reading it? 
  • I don’t have the same reaction to “he” in older works. It’s what I expect to find there. All writing is a product of its time and authors from older times have an excuse for using “he” throughout. Writers publishing today don’t.
  • Many men also don’t like writing that isn’t inclusive towards them. When we read a novel in school that imagined a world where “she” was the norm, many guys in our classroom were unhappy with it and would have stopped reading it if it hadn’t been a class assignment. Imagine what they might have felt like if most books ever written either ignored them or told them they should just see themselves in women? 

Given my own experiences as a disgruntled reader (and as a high school student listening to my disgruntled male classmates), I’ve tried to be more inclusive in my writing. Here are the 3 simple tips that can help with that:

1. Use more inclusive images in your writing

This tip mostly applies to blog posts. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. And most stock photos perpetuate stereotypes.

For instance, when writer Rachael Kay Albers searched for the term “woman,” here’s what she found:

Of the 120 women featured above at the top of search results on DepositPhotos, GraphicStock, iStock, and Shutterstock, there are:

  •  5 (visibly) multiethnic women
  • 7 women who look to be above the age of 40
  • 12 women experiencing an emotion other than giddy happiness
  • 1 woman dressed “alternatively” i.e. outside of Western beauty standards.”

She also found “0 women of different body types, 0 women of different abilities, 0 women who appear to be living anything other than a luxe, upper middle class lifestyle, 0 women who express themselves outside the gender binary.”

This is just one example but if my experience with stock photos is anything to go by, it’s pretty representative. As writers, it’s not our fault that many free stock image galleries are lacking diversity.

However, we can make an effort to use more diverse images. In addition to aiming for some racial diversity, here are some ways in which I’ve tried to make my images more inclusive:

  • For some of my articles about relationships, I’ve used images of two women kissing, as well as of a gay and an elderly couple.
  • For some articles that relate to empowerment and strength, I’ve used images of a male parathlete, as well as of a female boxer and weightlifter.
  • To be less ageist, I’ve sometimes used images of people who are in middle-age or older (such as for this post). 
  • To make articles less gendered, I’ve sometimes avoided using images of humans and instead used photos that showed nature, things, and animals (or just silhouettes of people).

To be clear, most of my featured images are still stereotypical stock images. I don’t want to stop having images of straight couples or pretty young people in my articles, I just don’t want to exclusively use them.

2. Use gender-neutral language

This one is the most straightforward to apply. Basically, you could summarize it as “Don’t say ‘man’ when you mean ‘human’.” 

For instance, don’t write “mankind” when you could be using the word “humanity”. Don’t call police officers “policemen” (unless the people you are referring to are literally all male). Don’t call a woman a “chairman.” 

Some authors (like the ones I mentioned in the beginning) still use the word “he” when they mean “he/she/they.” That’s so 1950s! 

Using “he or she” is better but not ideal as it assumes a gender binary. The easiest way to be inclusive in writing is by using singular “they” which is more widely accepted these days. If singular “they” is not appropriate in a specific context, you can use “one” instead. 

Gender-inclusive language also means that you avoid stereotypes in your writing. How can you know if you’re doing that? The United Nations give a good suggestion: 

“Reverse the gender: Would reversing the designation or the term from masculine to feminine or vice versa change the meaning or emphasis of the sentence? Would it make the sentence sound odd?”

Take, for instance, the sentence: “A father babysits his children.” This sentence implies that taking care of children isn’t a father’s job — he’s not a caretaker, just a babysitter. (Contrast this with the sentence: “A mother babysits her children.” Sounds weird, doesn’t it?) A better way of putting it is “The father takes care of his children.”

3. Use examples and quotes sourced from a diverse group of people

As a reader, I notice that some authors only source examples and quotes from a very limited group of people. This is especially true for some male writers who sometimes write an entire article without mentioning a single non-male expert/authority figure. 

This is part of a larger problem. For instance, a 2015 study that examined 1,467 articles and broadcast segments from Canadian media outlets/programs with high audience/readership numbers found that male sources quoted accounted for almost three-quarters of all persons quoted (71%). 

Another study found 

“evidence for a gender bias in how people speak about professionals. Men and women were, on average across studies, more than twice as likely to describe a male (vs. female) professional by surname.” 

That’s problematic because the study also found that people described by surname were judged as more eminent and 14% more deserving of a career award. 

Of course, these two studies are just touching the surface but hopefully they inspire you to evaluate a few of your articles based on their level of diversity (not just relating to gender). 

How can we find more quotes from more diverse sources? I find it helpful to simply search for quotes about a certain topic (for instance, on BrainyQuotes). Often, I find a few good ones to choose from. Then, I just try to be inclusive when I pick the ones I’ll use in my articles. 

To quote Judge Geary (Oberti v. Board of Education [D.N.J. 1992]): “Inclusion is a right, not a privilege for a select few.”

Unless we deliberately write for a specific audience (Americans/Millennials/ Buddhists/middle-aged men/Black women etc.), our readers have the moral right to feel included.

That doesn’t mean we need to change our opinion to avoid offending anybody or that we aren’t okay just the way we are. It just requires us to think about our readers, something that’s good for us writers to do anyway. 

As writers, we should make our readers feel welcome. We won’t be able to do this perfectly and it’s impossible to make everyone happy but we can make a good faith effort. 

We're all fundamentally equal and that should be apparent in our writing, too.

As the American Civil Rights Activist Jesse Jackson once put it: “Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.” 

And isn’t writing one of the very best tools for growth humans ever invented?

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About the author

Bere is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Bere loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.

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