Illustration of a group of diverse people standing in a circle with arms around each other

If you are creating content, that means you have a platform with an audience. And if you have a platform, you have power – and likely feel a responsibility to be aware of how you use your voice and its impact on others.

Harm can happen even if you don’t intend it to, which is why inclusive writing matters.

Inclusive writing is one way you can grow your audience – and be a good human. Just think about it: When you’re talking to a person face-to-face, you don’t want to say things that exclude or insult them. You make sure they feel welcome and understood. When you write, you’re having a big conversation with many different people you want to include.

As convenient as it would be, there is no comprehensive list of dos and don’ts. The words we use and what they mean change over time. The beauty of language is that it’s alive and evolves with us, bringing gems like “hangry” and “bingeable” into our vernacular.

While there are words people may want to avoid (I’m looking at you, “moist”), inclusive writing doesn’t just mean limiting your language. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Writing with inclusive language expands the words we use to better reflect the variety of life.

An inclusive writer knows language is rich with possibilities. There are so many ways to say things. So here are some practical tips to help you select words that connect with your audience and pull them in closer.

What is inclusive writing?

The Linguistics Society of America says inclusive language “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences and promotes equal opportunities.”

Along the same lines, the Conscious Style Guide defines conscious language as “language rooted in critical thinking and compassion, used skillfully in a specific context.” The group aims to help writers think critically about using language to empower, not limit.

Why inclusive writing matters in healthcare

Using inclusive or conscious language is especially important with groups that are often marginalized or vulnerable. Such groups can be based on factors like:

  • Age
  • Body size
  • Education
  • Health and mental health
  • Disability
  • Neurodiversity
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Socioeconomic status

As you look over these groups, each one has an impact on healthcare. Patient data like weight, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity can inform personalized care plans. A patient’s education level affects their ability to understand complex diagnoses and care plans. Socioeconomic status influences resources people have access to in their pursuit of better health. Religion may shape someone’s care preferences and boundaries.

By being aware of the diversity in your patients and using language that includes them, you can:

  • Avoid spreading stigma and harmful beliefs. For example, words like “crazy” or “bipolar” are sometimes used to negatively describe people’s everyday behaviors. But diagnoses such as PTSD, OCD and ADD are real mental health conditions that people live with, and painting them in a negative light perpetuates the stigma these people endure. To support people with mental health conditions, inclusive writers are careful to use these words only when medically accurate – and not as derogatory terms.
  • Build a larger, more diverse audience and community for your brand. With so many brands vying for consumers’ attention, it’s easy to walk away and find another. Everyone is used to personalized messaging, so if they feel excluded, they’ll quickly leave for the next brand that speaks to them. By using inclusive writing, you give each audience member a chance to connect with you and discover what your brand has to offer.
  • Improve health outcomes. On the clinical side, collecting inclusive data for sexual orientation and gender identity leads to more patient-centered care and better patient outcomes. When it comes to writing, consider the role of something like gender and sexual orientation. For example, not all patients with a uterus or pregnant people identify as women or moms – and yet their health can be improved with education for gynecological care, pregnancy or birth. Thinking outside the binary bias will include more people to which this information applies.
  • Remove barriers to understanding. Healthcare is full of complex diagnoses, terminology and acronyms that can alienate readers. Avoid stacking up obstacles for your readers by using plain language and avoiding common healthcare buzzwords.

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Best practices on how to write with inclusive language

Because we work with a living, evolving language, prescriptive rules may not stand the test of time. So here are some principles to guide you for inclusive writing.

Put people first

Remember that when you write, each person that reads it comes with their own unique perspective. When you approach a topic, think about all the various types of people who may find it helpful – how they differ, how they share similarities and how they may surprise you.

Person-centered and person-first language is especially important in healthcare. Person-centered language emphasizes the person as the focus of the writing so they don’t take a backseat to any other priorities. For example, instead of labeling someone as a diabetic or disabled person, refer to them as a person with diabetes or a disability.

Use trusted sources

When in doubt, refer to tried-and-true sources – and still question those too. Official writing style guides may lag behind inclusive writing best practices, waiting for the next update or version to be released. So keep your pulse on a few sources and combine them with your critical thinking skills.

A couple of good writing resources we recommend include the Conscious Style Guide and the Associated Press Stylebook (which recently added a new chapter on inclusive storytelling to the latest edition). The American Psychology Association also provides inclusive writing guidelines.

You can also investigate if organizations representing specific groups of people provide educational resources. For example, the Human Rights Campaign provides tools for equity and inclusion.

Keep at it

Inclusive writing isn’t something you can quickly memorize and master. It means having the right mindset and critical thinking skills. It’s a posture of advocacy. So stay curious and keep at it.

Do you need help with your inclusive writing? WriterGirl’s team of healthcare writers partner with your organization to create content that resonates with your audience. Send us a message to learn more about how we can support your content marketing initiatives.