A Writer’s Guide to Inclusive Language
Disappearing into a great book can be a transformative experience – a form of escapism and an expansion of your understanding.
When I’m diving into the world constructed by a creative author, I want to feel as though I belong in that world. Reading inclusive language is one of the ways in which all readers can feel connected to a story.
So how can you ensure you don’t exclude any of your readers and you help them feel seen?
Firstly, ask yourself this simple question…
Why Are You Writing This Particular Story?
We all possess an unconscious bias, and no matter how hard we fight it those hidden prejudices can be projected on to our work. Before we begin exploring inclusive language, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I writing about what I know?
- Is the person’s identity, socio-economic status, race, and age relevant to the plot?
- Is this my story to tell, or would it be better told by someone who has lived this experience?
If the answer to any of the above is ‘no’ and you still want to write this story, we strongly suggest you do your research and work with critique partners/beta readers/sensitivity readers who have lived the life you are writing. This will not only strengthen the realism of your work, but it will grant you more respect when it comes to pitching your novel to agents or editors.
As society changes, we need to remember our readers and their expectations change too. So, let’s look at how to write inclusive stories…
What is Inclusive Language?
Inclusive Language Definition:
Inclusion is the practice of fostering a sense of belonging, by including many perspectives, imagining a diverse audience, a multiplicity of ideals, values, and experiences. Inclusive language is how authors show that they recognise their readers, whoever they are, and that they are welcome.
Many people who belong to marginalised communities yearn to see and read about well-rounded, authentic, and diverse characters who are empowered. Characters with independent purpose in narratives, and therefore given the ability to make meaningful change.
Inclusive language isn’t just the description of appearance or using appropriate pronouns; it’s also the use of language to portray power, interest, and direction. It directly addresses the violence of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism, homophobia, and heteronormativity. Use of inclusive language also avoids direct discrimination, implicit and unconscious biases, and other forms of prejudice.
By practising inclusive writing, you will become highly aware of the language that has been used to communicate exclusion, bias, and hate. In order to appeal to ever-evolving audiences, it’s vital to be aware of out of date language, words, and descriptions, as well as those that have always been intended to cause offense.
Why Use Inclusive Language?
Inclusive language is important because it means you are thinking about your most vulnerable and marginalised readers. It’s important for us all to identify where our writing style inadvertently includes out-dated, offensive terms and work toward eliminating these – because we can’t expect our readers to sift through our work to find the good stuff.
So many people experience the world through the writing of others, whether it’s in museum text, film, TV, literature; representation matters to everyone. Limited representations and stereotypes of people in our society does not just harm those who are misrepresented or erased, it harms all whose imagination is limited and keeps their worldview small.
What Does Inclusive Language Look Like?
Power and agency are vital when considering your diverse characters. They must have autonomous, developed identities (so not just sidekicks or plot devices) who participate actively in the story and world.
As experiences of marginalisation and exclusion differ across identities here are a few ideas and examples to consider for your writing.
Parents and Pregnancy
For many authors creating character profiles is a useful starting point when developing family dynamics.
When writing inclusively you should be aware of:
- Hetronormative family structures. Heterosexual romantic relationship(s) don’t have to be central to the familial history and structure.
- Gender norms as affecting roles taken by parental figures (the mother doesn’t have to do all the cooking, the father doesn’t have to be great at DIY).
- Assumptions of the nuclear family with two parents and one or more child. These erase polyamorous and blended families and is a western ideal that doesn’t often include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and multi-generational households as the core familial structure.
Language matters – use toughen up instead of man up, homemaker instead of housewife, husband and wife instead of man and wife.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have a family that is made up of a married female mum, male dad, and 2.4 kids – it simply means that society doesn’t only look that way. It’s important to reflect reality in your work, as long as it doesn’t feel forced, gratuitous, or irrelevant.
A book that explored the idea of family in an inclusive way is Candice Carty-Williams’s 2019 novel Queenie. The titular character’s family is central to her narrative and their history unfolds throughout the story with the family dynamic driving the narrative. Queenie’s family is her grandmother, grandfather, her aunt, cousin and her mother; as well as the family she creates in her ‘corgis’. The relationships feel authentic and complex – their dynamic is a natural part of the texture of the world.
Gender and Sexual Orientation
It’s essential to use inclusive language when exploring gender experiences as well as experiences of sexuality across the spectrum of the LGBTQIA+ communities.
This acronym is used to capture a wide spectrum of experiences, not just those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. The first three letters (LGB) refer to sexual orientation. The ‘T’ refers to transgender, and so to gender identity. The “Q” stands for Questioning or Queer, the “I” for Intersexual and the “A” for Asexual.
Regardless of your own sexual preferences, remember the world is made up of many people with many different outlooks and lifestyles.
This also applies to unconscious bias when it comes to gender roles and what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’. Think about non-sexist language such as:
- Gender binaries and gender-neutral language (the idea that you have to be either male or female).
- Framing around gendered appearances (e.g. describing someone as girlie or a tom boy).
- The effects of patriarchal assumptions that make it seem necessary to use ‘female’ as an adjective with professions that have assumptions of a male standard e.g. doctor or scientist.
- Toxic masculinity that equates being a man to being tough and unemotional – and femininity to being submissive and sexualized or viewed with the male gaze to satisfy unrealistic fantasies.
Language matters – use gay instead of homo, sexual preference instead of sexuality, trans person instead of transvestite, humankind instead of mankind.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett discusses gender (and race) in an intimate manner. Reese and Jude’s relationship unfolds as a sweet experience of connection and insecurity of two marginalised people. Reese’s identity as a trans man is established early and his pronouns established and used consistently then on, with none of the narrative based on speculating on his gender. In fact it is society’s gender assumptions that become absurd, and painful when viewed from the perspective of a couple that sit outside of this.
Poverty and social exclusion are often overlooked when writing inclusively. The language used to refer to people of low socioeconomic status can strengthen negative stereotypes upheld by society, without exploring the systemic inequalities that create poverty and social exclusion in the first place.
Things to keep in mind:
- Consider talking about people’s socio-economic status rather than class.
- Describing people as survivors rather than victims addresses the idea of agency and power inherent in inclusive writing.
- Describing people as poor or areas as ghettos, is offensive and dismissive, assigning value only to financial and material assets.
In fact, if you show (not tell) your reader what your characters’ lives are like you won’t need to refer to the words poor, low class, or slums.
Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood describes the reality of living in a community that had been ghettoised by systematic exclusion and discrimination in Apartheid South Africa. The characters in his narrative are interesting and complex, not limited by stereotypical victim narratives, simply people who have to live in an excluded society.
When writing about the experience of disabilities it’s important to acknowledge the vastness of what is understood as a disability. As mentioned previously, if disability is not your lived experience, then work with those who can advise you.
Things to consider:
- Assumptions about what a disability looks like can result in invisible illnesses and mental health conditions being treated with scepticism and mistrust.
- Framing of disability as something strange encourages tropes of disabled villains. Such as where disfigurement and scarring are used to signal wickedness (the James Bond franchise has been under fire for this recently); or mental health or childhood trauma is used to create a backstory that explains violent characteristics. These are dangerous and hurtful tropes with real-life impact.
The ‘othering’ of disabilities detaches these experiences from our understanding of ‘normal’ experiences in society and supports social exclusion – despite the fact that 15% of the world’s population openly identifies as having a disability.
Language matters – wheelchair bound implies a wheelchair traps its user, whereas wheelchair user articulates that their mobility aid provides freedom and greater access to its user.
With mental health, the words mental, crazy, unhinged, unpredictable etc are biased and harmful (unless purposely used in dialogue to represent a character’s own views). Describe their characteristics without using words that are biased and rooted in ridicule or fear.
Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals explores the nuance of dealing will long-term illness and disability, along with Black feminist theory, delivered through poetry and essays.
Race and Ethnicity
Race is a social construct, but racism is a reality that affects us all.
Ethnic diversity is often what people refer to when discussing racial differences; ethnicity is a mix of inherited features and shared cultures. It’s distinct from nationality, which is a legal status that assigns a person to the laws of a state or nation, as well as affords them protection by this state.
Many readers will have, at some point, read ‘classic’ narratives with no ethnic diversity, or tokenistic and stereotypical representations (for instance, the language used in the much-loved classic, The Secret Garden, would not be acceptable today).
When considering ethnicity in characters, remember it’s not always vital to describe the skin colour or nationality of your character through physical descriptions (you can allude to heritage via their name or setting, or simply let readers decide what they look like).
If you must describe them, consider:
- Our world is ethnically diverse, so your literary worlds should be thoughtfully described without dipping in to fetishized language focusing on features in an overt and uncomfortable way. When describing someone there’s no need to isolate body parts like lips or genitals, or describe skin tones using food.
- The Diversity Guide is a great source of reference for inclusive language examples.
Language matters – use uppercase ‘B’ in the word ‘Black’ when referring to race, ethnicity or cultural background, and lower case for the colour ‘black’.
An excellent example of inclusive writing around ethnicity is N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. Though set in a fantasy world where racial identities do not correlate to our own, the character’s physical descriptions are detailed and rich enough that readers experience a varied cast of characters that are ethnically diverse, nuanced, and relatable.
I will end by exploring writing inclusively about age, which is essential as all our identities are filtered by age. For instance, referencing age can provide a restrictive lens that may ascribe ignorance and beauty to youth, and cynicism and wisdom to the elderly.
Ageism affects people regardless of how old they are. Consider these intersections to help challenge stereotypes:
- Ageism with gender assumptions, around pregnancy and desires for pregnancy. Is every woman over thirty desperate for children?
- Ageism combined with racism brings forth particular stereotypes and harmful assumptions (e.g. Black youths vs Black elders).
- Ageism combined with disability can bring to light an array of pre-conceived prejudice.
- The erasure of LGBTQIA+ elders support an idea that these communities are new in society without longevity and legacy.
Language matters – although the terms old fart, little old lady, bitter old man and old hag are often used in jest, they are still insulting (unless they’re included in a character’s dialogue to reflect their own bias).
For a great example of how to change a reader’s perception of age, Jonas Jonasson’s novel, The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, is a refreshing narrative from the perspective of an older protagonist that actively challenges the limited expectations of older characters, instead highlighting how all the experiences of his life created accumulated knowledge and perspectives that furthered his narrative and creative possibilities.
Evolution of Language
Bear in mind that movements to reclaim language that’s historically been used to offend, by those who these words were used against, is rising.
Exploration around ‘crip culture’ reclaiming the word ‘cripple,’ or movements within the LGBT+ communities to reclaim the term ‘queer,’ are very interesting elements of inclusive practice that explore the complexity of power and positionality.
However, these remain problematic for most writers unless they have lived that experience and have a very good reason to use self-deprecating language.
The reclaimed language, among other debates and advocacies based on marginalised people telling their own stories, can and should be explored further by following the #OwnVoices hashtag (created by author Corinne Duyvis). Other related community discussions and campaigns, such as the We Need Diverse Books campaign, are worth researching.
But please, don’t ask someone else to educate you. If you want to run ideas past someone, hire (that means pay) a sensitivity reader.
If your intention is to create a greater sense of belonging, a richer and more complicated world that feels relevant with open possibilities, then it is always worth expanding your practice and considering the impact of the words you choose and the inclusivity of your text. We don’t always get it right, but it’s important to try.
Because I believe there’s a reflexive relationship between inclusive language and inclusive society. As writers it’s our job to be aware of exclusions in society, to consider the agency in the characters we create, and to help move the world forward through the literary worlds we build.
And remember, if all of this appears to be too difficult or unnecessary – maybe your story isn’t yours to tell. Draw from your own experiences. Bring your readers into your world, and in turn help them feel seen.
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