How We Write: Inclusive Content is Content for ALL

At a company I worked for a few years ago, I first heard about the concept of “the golden thread.” Essentially, the “golden thread” is a metaphor for the decisions, behaviors, and processes that provide the connection between strategy and actual results. It’s interesting to think that the objective could be something like “to improve the environment” and that there is a thread that could guide you along that path. Or an objective like “to own a home in my city” knowing that, sure enough, if you follow the thread one day you will hold the keys to your own front door.

For a technical writer, the notion of a golden thread should be much more than just a content thread. We employ those all the time. A document that outlines a process, from start to finish, should have a thread running through it. A Standard Operating Procedure manual should have an easily identifiable thread to follow from one process to another, weaving through an entire organization. The metaphor is not difficult to picture.

Although easy to spot in some instances, the notion of a thread tying together so much that it leaves no one out is more elusive. And yet, it is essential in today’s communication.

As a content strategist, I try to be mindful of all of the aspects of inclusivity as I write and design. My audience can vary from newcomers to the product I write for to highly experienced users. I write to the needs of engineers and data scientists, but also new adopters and first-time visitors. But experience level is not the only area where I must think of inclusion. That part is actually the easier lift.

Where inclusivity matters in technical content is in writing in a way that every reader can understand. In best-case scenarios, someone has come before and prepared a thorough style guide that captures clear writing, because writing clearly is more than minimalism. Cutting away formal words when less formal ones will do is one step in the process. I choose to write “let” rather than “enable” – as in “this product lets you plan your wedding” instead of “XYZ software enables you to plan a wedding.” Right?

Erwin Steinberg of Carnegie Mellon University was the first scholar to champion what he called “plain English.” Casting aside passive voice and professional jargon, Steinberg argued that writing simply and plainly was the best approach to complex concepts. His thought prevails today, especially when writing inclusively.

Today, many readers are approaching documentation with some accessibility issue. From low-vision to color blindness to dyslexia, the number of reader-centered accommodations is vast. One would think it would be impossible to consider all of them. And one would be wrong. By choosing to write pages that do not have complex markup that a screen reader wouldn’t understand, you have chosen inclusive writing. By using proper and bold headings, you allow those with low vision or attention deficits to more easily scan and identify chunks of information. Including images only with a corresponding text description assists a wide variety of readers and adds to easy clarity with little effort on the writer’s part.

It’s important, as a content designer, to consistently test and modify documents. There’s no such thing as the perfect, complete document. (Remember, perfect is the enemy of done.) Knowing this, though, it’s equally important to revisit your writing and your language choices as regularly as possible to see where you can improve. Scheduling regular reviews of your own work is the best way to see where you missed and where you didn’t.

When creating content of any kind, keep a few numbers in mind:

  • 26% of the US population has a disability
  • 20% has a mental illness
  • 5% is LGBTQ+

So what does this mean for writing? Glad you asked.

  • Monitor cultural references that not everyone will understand
  • Use preferred pronouns when writing personally, neutral pronouns whenever possible
  • Don’t assume that readers are heterosexual, male, female, young, etc.
  • Use gender-neutral professions and titles (e.g. firefighter, not fireman)
  • Never assign a gender to a quality (that is, strong is not manly and feminine is just off-limits)
  • Add detailed descriptions for links, not just “click here”
  • Never use ableist language (lame, blind, dumb)
  • Don’t swap out mental health assignations for daily emotions (someone who is meticulous is not OCD)

Along with these practices, keep in mind that shorter is better, jargon is awful, and if you have to use some fancy words you should build a glossary. Never rely on a stereotype and don’t assume a joke is funny to everyone. Absolutely choose welcoming topics, consider readers’ needs, and look for ways to improve every day.

When all is said and done, if you aren’t sure – ask. Rarely do people who are asked for their input respond poorly. People who are not considered or included – now they can get a bit (justifiably) upset.

Write on.