Writing Inclusively: Tips for Authors

How to Write in a Way that Does Not Exclude Anyone from Your Audience

By Rebecca Bush, Commissioning Editor

To make sure your book is read by as wide an audience as possible, it’s important to write in a way that is inclusive; that is, to not exclude anyone with your writing. Most authors, of course, will not deliberately offend or alienate. But because we are all different, and we all have different experiences, different viewpoints and different kinds of privilege and challenge, it can be easy to let unconscious bias go unchecked.

Unconscious bias is where a person’s held beliefs, or a choice of words they use, is exclusionary, offensive or simply wrong – but that person is not aware that their beliefs are influencing the way they speak or write. Everyone holds unconscious biases to a certain extent – having unconscious biases does not make someone unusual or a bad person. However, it is important, as an author, to work towards becoming aware of your own unconscious biases and try to stop them impacting your writing – because it’s just the right thing to do, and because it will not exclude any of your readers!

What is a Sensitivity Read?

One of the most important ways this can be done in book publishing is through editing and sensitivity reads. An editor can act as a second pair of eyes – someone with different experiences and beliefs who can help pick up any harmful unconscious biases that have crept into a text. A sensitivity read is a special additional type of edit – where someone with the lived experience to have a greater awareness of various unconscious biases reads through your manuscript to highlight any potentially problematic areas, such as unintentionally racist, sexist, homo- or trans-phobic or otherwise harmful words or ideas.

If you are writing for or about a historically disadvantaged or oppressed group of people to which you do not belong, a sensitivity read can be an important stage in addition to standard editorial processes. For example, if you are a white person writing Black characters or about Black culture, it will be important to make sure that you take into account the actual thoughts and feelings of Black people themselves. Or if you are a cisgender man writing for or about women, trans people or non-binary people, again you might want to get a second (or third, or fourth) pair of eyes to bring their lived experience to benefit your writing and check it for anything harmful. Sensitivity reads are a skilled and important job, and if you think your book could benefit from one, or your editor recommends one, it is definitely worth factoring it into the process.

Challenge Assumptions

Many books do not require a specific sensitivity read (although not as many as go without one, sadly). With or without this step, there are a number of things that you, as an author, can keep in mind during the writing process to help avoid any unintentional exclusion. The main principle to remember is this – don’t assume that your readers have the same experience of life as you do.

This means you need to check assumed knowledge in your readers and assumed commonalities with your readers. Practically speaking, you need to be able to rely on making some assumptions about your readers, of course – otherwise writing becomes pretty well impossible! You don’t need to pander to or patronise your readers by over-explaining every tiny thing… but you do want to double check that your assumptions are both reasonable and fairly accurate. For example, are you assuming that every reader has been to university? Is that fair and reasonable for your target readership? Are you writing for women? Have you assumed that all women experience menstrual periods, or want children, for instance? Are you writing for an English-speaking audience outside your home country? Have you double checked that idioms and informal words translate properly – like “thongs” in the UK vs Australia? Are you using a sports metaphor, assuming that all of your readers are familiar with the rules of that sport?

Some of these assumptions are absolutely fine in the context of particular books, and some are probably not fine in most contexts (e.g. it is not correct that all women experience menstrual periods, but maybe you are writing a parenting book and therefore it’s safe to assume that your readership are all parents or caregivers). The point is not that all assumptions are bad, it’s to make sure all assumptions are challenged; some will be helpful and necessary, some will be harmful, and many will be somewhere in between.

Some Inclusive Writing Tips

Of course, the whole point about unconscious bias is that it is unconscious, so please don’t beat yourself up if your editor catches something that you missed. Remember: this is absolutely part of the human experience, and none of us know what we don’t know until we know it! To help you out, here are some common ways that exclusionary language or ideas show up in writing and more inclusive approaches to consider instead:

  • Consider using the gender-neutral singular “they” instead of a default male pronoun or s/he; there’s more about writing inclusively for all genders here. 
  • Avoid using outdated terminology to refer to disability, race/ethnicity and so on, instead making sure you take the time to use the language that members of each community prefer (e.g. the word “handicapped” used to be considered medically correct; now, it would be considered outdated and offensive in most contexts.)
  • When using examples or case studies, try to ensure you avoid homogeneity and instead use an inclusive and diverse range of people. Try to include a cross-section of genders, races/ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, education levels, disabilities and neurodiversity.
  • Be particularly thorough in interrogating any slang or idioms you use; often these can have offensive roots that you may not be aware of. Or, perhaps they are phrases that are absolutely fine when taken in context by those who know you, but might be exclusionary to readers who do not have that context. For example, phrases such as “black sheep”, “man up” or “grow a pair”, and “it’s crazy how…” are all phrases that have roots in various prejudices and, as harmless as they are meant to be, can exclude or offend.

Enjoy the Process

Diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) is a very big topic, and can be filled with tension. As an author, writing inclusively shouldn’t be something that stresses you out unnecessarily, or saps the joy from writing. You should feel free to express yourself in your writing. Primarily, your focus is going to be on getting your message across well to the people you want to reach. These tips are all about simply keeping the full range of your potential audience in mind, because not everyone you’re writing for will be exactly like you – and that’s the exciting thing! Yes, you want to keep differences in mind, and try to use inclusive language wherever you can – but that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it. It’s all about making the fun accessible to as many folks as possible – so enjoy!

To submit a proposal and pitch to become a Lived Places author, please see our Call for Authors.

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This post was first published in the Newgen Publishing UK Newsletter, and adapted for Lived Places Publishing with permission.

IMAGE CREDIT: hannah grace, used under the Unsplash Licence


Written by: Rebecca

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