How to write more inclusively


We are always writing to someone – even when we are lost in the impersonal trance of writing. Who is anyone? How old are they? What race or nationality? What income level? Are they an agent? An editor? A sister or fellow writer?

Consider this: “Aim for the absolute version,” editor Tom Jenks advised during a week-long intensive writing workshop in Denver several years ago. “Write the story so that anyone can understand it.” And avoid writing so that you exclude some readers.

Here is an example of writing that makes assumptions that shut out many readers:

Everyone knows how frustrating it can be to fly coach. You know – cramped seats, lousy food, attendants too busy for all the passengers.

Two simple changes convert this to include a much broader audience:

Many people know how frustrating it can be to fly coach. You might know – cramped seats, etc.

Avoid – especially in travel writing – assuming that everyone is like you. Avoid writing “everyone.” And avoid writing, “you know”. Some people can’t afford to fly, some people don’t mind coach, some people don’t fly at all. Writing “Many people” and leaving out “you know” allow for variations in humans – and in your readers.

Another mistake in travel writing is to assume that the reader knows your references, e.g., We pulled into the parking lot at Coachella a little before dusk. The mountains were black against the sunset. We’d hoped to catch Flume, but we were too late. My girlfriend, Ginger, stomped back to the van. I caught up with her. “On top of it,” she snarled. “I forgot my glowsticks.”

Try this:

I pulled into the parking lot at the Coachella music festival outside of Indio, California. My girlfriend, Ginger [we always need to know who “we” is.] and I climbed out into the dry April warmth. The Santa Rosa mountains were black against the sunset. We’d hoped to catch the Australian electronic music performer Flume’s set. We were too late. Ginger stomped back to the van. I caught up with her. “On top of missing Flume (watch out for vague terms like “it”), I forgot my favorite glowsticks.” I knew she relied on the glowing tubes when she danced.

Another exclusionary tactic is to judge the place and/or people you are writing about. It is far too common for English-speaking writers to describe a local’s speech as broken English, e.g., The street vender offered a taste of her noodles in her broken English.

Here is an inclusive version:

The street vender held out a paper plate. “Please try this,” she said.

Consider how you might feel if a Thai reader described your broken Thai.

It is also exclusionary to demean the buildings and conditions of a local setting. Rather than: My friend and I walked down the filthy street. Try this:

My friend and I walked down the dirt street. Fast food wrappers fluttered against the shop doors.

The great poet, Emily Dickinson, wrote over a hundred years ago: Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Let the clean details of your writing tell the story you came here to tell. Your second-most important readers, no matter their gender, age or socio-economic status will understand. And who is the most important reader? The reader who is with you all the time? Of course, that friend and reader is you.

[Photo: Jeffrey Smith]

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