Tips to avoid excluding readers

Yesterday I blogged about tailoring content to meet the needs of specific readership groups. Today I’m blogging about writing for all readership groups. When we write for all readerships our focus changes. We can’t say “what is relevant to my reader’s identity?” We have to say “what might exclude some readers?”

This blog post is adapted from a guide I have written for environmentalists.

There are times when we want to appeal to all passersby.

  • A speaking spot at a public event
  • An information stall in the street
  • A poster display in a public place

Much environmental communication aims to attract any person who cares about the planet. In this situation we can’t tailor content to please specific groups. Our readers are everyone.

When we don’t know our audience, we need to change our approach. Instead of tailoring content to appeal to specific groups, we have to focus on not excluding anyone.

  • We must avoid excluding less privileged readership groups.
  • We must avoid excluding readers with reading difficulties.
  • We must avoid excluding readers who lack specialist subject knowledge.

Excluding readers with less privileged identities

Language use is often symptomatic of the commonly accepted social beliefs of the day. In early 20th-century Britain it was usual to write “he” when referring to an unknown person. This reflected male social dominance. It was as if men were the default human majority and women were a minority.

Can you see the problem with this sentence?

She showed the customer clothes in a variety of pink shades including fuchsia and nude.

This use of nude is based on the assumption that nude skin is white person’s skin. It reflects white privilege in society and excludes people with other skin colours. The writer should replace nude with pale pink.

These days we all know that unquestioning acceptance of a group’s social dominance  affects our word choices. Yet, our own assumptions about the default human identity are not always obvious to us. We have to monitor our own writing.

Can you see which privileged groups have been treated as the default normal in these sentences? Who have the writers left out?

All school children should go jogging.
Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston look like average Americans.

Of course, not all school children have the physical ability to jog. And as for the average American, is there such a person in the racially diverse USA?

Read the problematic sentences below. They share a common issue. (Assume that the writers are American or British and belong to socially dominant groups.)

The Native Americans have a unique approach to spirituality.
Did you learn Arabic to speak to your Muslim neighbour?

Writers with socially dominant identities have a tendency to homogenise other less privileged groups.

In the USA the indigenous peoples have been disadvantaged in many ways by settler populations. The result of a long history of struggles is a tendency by some Americans and British to refer to Native Americans as if they were a monolithic block. There are many Native American cultures.

Muslims are a numerical minority in the USA and the UK. They are also badly stereotyped in the media. There is a common tendency among socially dominant groups to assume that all Muslims are Arabs. In reality Muslims come from all over the world.

Excluding readers who have reading difficulties

The world’s population is neurodiverse. Our brains are not all the same. Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD and other neurodiversities affect how people approach reading.

Over a lifetime most people’s reading abilities fluctuate due to medication, injury, illness and education. Reading requires attention, memory, processing speed, access to the senses, experience, general knowledge, literacy and the ability to connect letters with sounds.

Text reading technology helps some people by reading words aloud to them. You might be hearing this blog post. Writers can support this group of readers by writing to be listened to. It is also a good idea to describe visual illustrations for blind readers.

Writers can make text more accessible by changing some bad habits.

Crack down on unnecessarily long texts, long sentences and long words
Unnecessary length excludes readers who tire easily.

Avoid using huge paragraphs and big blocks of text with no subheadings
Without rest stops tired readers may lose their way.

Cut out waffling, flowery language and jargon
Poor writing is difficult to read for the majority of people.

Writers can make positive adjustments to help struggling readers and anyone skimming through text in a hurry.

Share the essential message at the start
Readers who depart early will understand your message. Readers who stay will be helped in their digestion of later pages.

Divide long text into sections
Each section should have a coherent message that contributes to the overall purpose of the document. Tackling one section at a time is easier for readers than navigating through a single block of text.

Use visuals
Infographics and text boxes display crucial information at a glance.

When public speaking, divide your speech into sections and begin each section with a summary of what you will say and why. This helps to retain listeners who have lost the thread.

Excluding readers who lack particular experiences

We learn words from the people we mix with. Every group uses words that newcomers don’t know. By group I mean everything from a schoolyard gang to a scientific research institute.

When scientists write for the public they try to avoid specialist words that are too obscure to be understood by readers.

Panthera genus = Big cats
Homo sapiens = Modern humans
Seismologists = Earthquake researchers

Writing specialist content in plain English opens knowledge to everybody.

Plain English words are those known to the widest number of people in the community. Not all specialist vocabulary has a direct plain English “translation,” but every concept can be explained in everyday language.

Knowing which words are too specialist for the wider community is a matter of judgement. Some specialist scientific vocabulary is widely understood due to exposure in television shows such as Big Bang Theory.

Difficult Latin vocabulary

English has inherited a rich treasury of words with Latin origins. In some English speaking groups and regions these words are not commonly used in conversation. As a result some readers may be excluded by their use.

Here are a few examples of Latin-English words and their plain equivalents.

Masticate = to chew
Augment = to add to something
Ameliorate = to improve
Perambulate = to walk
Pusillanimous = cowardly
Pugnacious = quarrelsome
Desiccate = to dry up
Precipitation = rain/snow
Quotidian = daily

This blog post is about how to make your writing more accessible and inclusive. It is only a brief survey and does not claim to cover all that is needed.

I haven’t touched on the very important subject of gender inclusive vocabulary. So as a last word I will say this. Using “they” for the third person singular is grammatically acceptable despite the discomfort of some grammar purists. English people have been doing it since at least the 15th century. “They” is a simple alternative to writing “he or she.” It’s also inclusive of non-binary gender. 

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