An Introduction to Inclusive Writing

First and foremost, a HUGE thank you to Bela Gaytan for providing suggestions and insight for this article. Bela is an instructional designer, community builder, DEIAB advocate, web developer, speaker, coach, and founder of Azera Talent, which is focused on placing clients into amazing roles and ensuring they are set up for success and showing organizations how to build and retain a diverse, inclusive, and supportive workplace. Please follow and support Bela and Azera Talent for more amazing DEIAB content. 

Inclusive writing is important for the workplace, and specifically L&D, for multiple reasons. First, it promotes being socially conscious and rejecting discrimination. It also shows respect for a diverse audience. When an employee feels included in their workplace, they are more engaged – which means they are more motivated to listen and learn. Additionally, if we use exclusive language that causes people to disengage, they won’t learn and our work won’t be effective.

Content Advisory: The following paragraphs mention racist, violent, and sexist phrases used as examples to teach and facts about systemic racism, gun violence, self-harm, and death.

1. Some phrases are racist in nature and should be avoided

It’s important to understand where words and phrases come from because a lot of the phrases we use every day are rooted in racism, sexism, discrimination, or disrespect for a culture. For example, when we use the word “guru” to describe someone who is really smart or good at something, we negate its original value as a highly respected spiritual guide or leader in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Or how “grandfathered in,” which is commonly used when people are allowed to continue following an existing set of rules after a new set of rules are put in place, comes from a clause exempting white people from tests and taxes that were exacted, making it harder for Black people to vote after the 15th amendment was passed. 

This website lists common phrases and their offensive history, as well as suggestions on what to use instead. 

2. Use phrases that are gender neutral

When you can, use gender neutral words and phrases. For example, instead of “manmade,” you can write “handmade.” Instead of “fireman” or “mailman,” you can use “firefighter” or “mail carrier.” Also, in a world where there are more genders than just male and female, you should use the word “they,” instead of “she/he” when referring to people. For example, instead of saying “If a new hire has questions about this training, she/he should contact the L&D team,” you should say, “If a new hire has questions about this training, they should contact the L&D team.”

3. Avoid violent language

There are a surprising amount of words and phrases that are explicitly or implicitly violent that appear in our everyday conversations. Phrases that are so familiar to us, such as “bullet points,” “trigger warning,” and “give it a shot,” are more subtly violent. However, there are phrases, like “shoot yourself in the foot” and “bring out the big guns” that are explicitly violent. In the U.S., gun-related deaths (both suicide and homicide) have steadily increased over the years. In fact, gun violence was the leading cause of death for children 19 and under in the U.S. in 2020. 

In an effort to stop normalizing and excusing violent, militarized, or weaponized language, the Center for Hope & Safety has put together a lengthy list of phrases we might not even realize we use that are violent in nature.

4. Avoid slang

A cliché like “don’t cry over spilled milk” and an idiom like “raining cats and dogs” may not be understood by everyone. Many times, these slang phrases are geographical and cultural, so they may not make sense to all learners. Oh, and by the way, you really shouldn’t use clichés and idioms in your writing anyway because they’re considered overused and typically not descriptive enough. So, it’s just best to avoid them all around.

5. Know when to use person-first or identity-first language

There’s an ongoing conversation about whether person-first or identity-first language should be used when referring to people with disabilities. People-first language, where the emphasis is on the person rather than the identity, was first adopted because it was thought to shift the focus onto the person, rather than an illness or disability that carries a negative connotation. For example, you might say a “person with disabilities,” instead of a “disabled person.”

However, self-advocates have recently spoken out about preferring identity-first language, such as an “autistic person” instead of a “person with autism” because they believe that their disability is not a thing that makes them bad or a reason for them to be rejected. They also believe it’s a way to celebrate their identity, like we would refer to a “gay person” or a “Jewish woman.” Many disabled folks, however, still prefer people-first language, so the best practice is to use what they prefer! And if you’re not sure - don’t use it at all.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide breaks down different disabilities and how the people with those disabilities generally prefer to be identified – people- or identity-first, which may help you determine which to use in your writing. 

6. Avoid ableist language

Ableist language is any word or phrase that is used to devalue and marginalize people with disabilities. These are words and phrases that – if you really think about them – are never meant as compliments when we use them. For example, saying that something is “the blind leading the blind” or that someone is “tone deaf.”

This infographic posted on LinkedIn by Film Forward by Seed&Spark shares more common ableist phrases and what you can use instead – as well as why the word or phrase is considered offensive to disabled people.

7. Represent diverse characters in your work

When creating stories and scenarios in your writing, don’t forget to include diverse characters. Instead of all male and female characters, include a non-binary character in a story. Instead of all non-disabled people, include a disabled person. Include characters of all ages, races, and from all socioeconomic statuses as it makes sense to do so. And remember, it’s not enough to simply give your characters diverse names, you want to give them diverse life experiences as well. 

8. Avoid using jargon and acronyms when writing for new hires

The last tip is a short and simple one – when writing content for new hires, remember to spell out all your acronyms. It’s best practice to spell out all acronyms at first use, but sometimes companies become so familiar with words, they forget to do this. Make sure checking for acronym explanations is part of your quality assurance process. Also, avoid industry jargon that non-technical new hires may not be familiar with yet. 

At the end of the day, inclusive writing begins with considering your audience. After all, that’s the whole reason we do discovery and analysis in learning and development, right? To better understand our target audience and the best way to communicate information with them so that learning will be the most useful. 

Center for Hope & Safety. “Violent Phrases That Are Used in Everyday Speech.” Accessed January 4, 2023. 

Conscious Style Guide. Accessed January 4, 2022.

Dr. Monica Simonsen and Dr. Cynthia Mruczek. “Person-First vs. Identity-First Language.” Accessed January 6, 2023. 

Ending Racism Together. “Say This, Not That.” Accessed January 4, 2023. 

Film Forward by Seed&Spark. “Say This & Not That. Accessed January 11, 2023.

National Center on Disability and Journalism. “Disability Language Style Guide.” Accessed January 4, 2022.

Readability Formulas. “Automatic Readability Checker.” Accessed January 6, 2023. 

University of North Carolin at Chapel Hill. “Writing Concisely.” Accessed January 6, 2023. 

Wikipedia. “Gun Violence in the United States.” Accessed January 5, 2023.

Blog thumbnail photo by Windows

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Find more articles in related categories:
DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)
Diversity, equity, and inclusion refers to initiatives (many times training initiatives) that are designed to encourage knowledge and appreciation of differences among employees in the workplace.
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