General guidelines

Involve diverse people in the creative process

Background:

Writing, editing, and communicating information are inherently interpersonal activities. Collaboration is vital because no one person can realistically assume all perspectives when writing or editing. Diverse teams produce higher-quality work and can prevent mistakes that alienate the audience, such as using biased language or images that perpetuate stereotypes (see “Stereotypes in images”). Theories about why diverse teams are more effective include that they are more fact focused and innovative, particularly when a group commits to diversity and recognizes the challenges that it poses. For all these reasons, people who bring new perspectives are valuable on a creative team. Assembling a diverse team is not always easy or fast, but the alternative is reinforcing areas of unawareness on a team.

Because of the value of diversity and long-standing inequities that have resulted in a lack of diversity at many organizations, sometimes the same people get asked to work on teams, which can overburden those people. Another problem is when people from an underrepresented group get added to a team only for the appearance of diversity and aren’t given any real power or support. This tokenism is unfair, doesn’t treat people as true team members, and can make people feel like representatives of a marginalized group.

Recommendation:

Whenever possible, strive for a team of collaborators that reflects diverse perspectives and lived experiences regarding gender, race and ethnicity, age, and geographic location, among other factors. At the same time, do not make assumptions about people’s characteristics. If the group of people on a project is not diverse, add people with different experiences or identities than those represented on the project team, and give all members real power and support. Treat team members as important, complex people who do not speak for all members of their race, gender, age, or other characteristic. 

Do not rely on the same person every time a topic relating to a group they belong to arises, and avoid asking for someone’s opinion only about their identity. Recognize them as bringing value beyond providing an unrepresented perspective. When asking for someone’s help in an employment or workplace context, recognize their contribution and fairly compensate them for the value added. In a volunteering context, acknowledge their contributions.

Especially when writing about a group that is not represented on your writing and editing teams, consider consulting or hiring a sensitivity reader who does represent that group. Sensitivity readers are additional editors whose primary or only focus is to spot and root out biased or alienating language or notions. A trained sensitivity reader can also be adept at doing this work for materials that aren’t related to the reader’s personal identities.


Be appropriately specific

Background:

Using a single label for a large, diverse group ignores differences between individuals in that group. In contrast, naming smaller, specific groups can be powerful, especially when those groups feel invisible. For example, Native Americans belong to distinct nations with their own cultures. Naming a specific nation when possible is generally preferred to using “Native Americans” as a broad group. But sometimes it is necessary to group people together to discuss general differences, such as access for nondisabled people versus people with disabilities. In addition, being inappropriately specific may exclude people. For example, referring only to women when discussing childbirth excludes those who can give birth but do not identify as women.

Recommendation:

In general, be as specific as possible about the people you’re referring to while being accurate. If you categorize many disparate groups together, consider whether you can name them all instead of using a single label.

Example:

Use:

Black, Hispanic, and Asian students reacted positively.

Avoid:

Students of color reacted


Avoid labeling people by a characteristic

Background:

Labeling people by a characteristic ignores other important dimensions of their identities and reduces people to labels, robbing them of personhood.

Recommendation:

In general, do not use the format “the [adjective],” “a(n) [adjective],” or “[plural adjective]” when referring to characteristics of people. Instead, use adjectives with nouns.

Examples:

Use:

older people (also see "Ageist language and stereotypes")

Avoid:

the elderly

Use:

autistic child or child with autism (also see “People-first language and identity-first language”)

Avoid:

the autistics

Use:

Black people (also see “Races and ethnicities as adjectives”)

Avoid:

the Blacks


Ask people how they want to be described, and respect that language

Background:

Language is powerful, and the ability to choose the way to describe oneself is empowering. Often, privileged people create names for members of different groups to exclude them and deprive them of rights. When people of a marginalized group choose their own names and terms, they reclaim some amount of power. For example, some people have turned what were once slurs into self-affirming terms (see “Queer”).

Accuracy requires using the language that people want you to use when describing them.

Recommendation:

When writing about someone’s race, ethnicity, gender identity, health, age, or other characteristic, ask how they would like to be described. Then use that language. When it’s not possible to ask an individual or group, use the language recommended by organizations that advocate for the identity you’re trying to describe. For example, if you are unable to determine the language that a group of people with a specific disability wants to use, look at the language that organizations representing people with that disability use. Although preferences within groups vary, using terms that advocacy organizations promote is acceptable when individual preferences can’t be ascertained.

Terms that this guide says to avoid can be retained in official names of organizations and programs. When they appear in a quote, consider whether the quote is necessary and the benefit versus harm of keeping that term in your content. If retaining the wording would cause more harm, then paraphrase.

Example:

Use:

His goal with the research was to help people with the disease be pain-free, he says. (Paraphrasing and specifying the person’s goal are more inclusive.)

Avoid:

“My goal with the research was to help people with the disease live normal, healthy lives,” he says. (“Normal” is subjective and demeaning when used as a contrast to people with a disease, disorder, or other health condition.)


When to include personal information

Background:

Mentioning personal information signals to the audience that there is a reason for doing so—that the information gives necessary background, for example. But when this information, such as a personal characteristic, is shared for only some people and not others and only in some contexts, bias may appear. For example, if you say, “XX, a Black scientist” but not mention the races of other people, you are implying that being Black is different or unusual and should thus be noted to the reader. But in a piece about the experiences of Black scientists, it may be appropriate to note that someone is Black.

Recommendation:

Mention personal information such as gender, race, or disability only when relevant. When personal information is important to mention, write sensitively and respectfully. When deciding whether to include someone’s race, gender, disability, or other aspect of their identity, ask what that information will add and how it will help the reader understand the content. If you are tempted to name a characteristic like race for one person but not another, question why. Also see “When and how to mention age,” “When and how to mention someone’s health,” “When and how to mention gender and sexual orientation,” “When and how to mention race and ethnicity,” “When and how to mention nationality and locations,” “When and how to mention immigration status,” and “When and how to refer to socioeconomic status groups.”


Recognize words that assume a cultural norm

Background:

Unconscious biases may emerge in writing. Failing to consider possible biases and how they appear in your content may unintentionally ostracize people who don’t share your background—the combination of factors that have contributed to your point of view.

Recommendation:

Examine your language and the way you describe things to identify potential biases. For example, the words “foreign,” “ethnic,” and “exotic” mean different things depending on who you are; it is generally better to be specific. Notice when your language assumes a country-specific framework, and question whether that is appropriate for your content. For example, June through September is not summer for the entire world, so it may be clearer to use months instead of seasons when referring to a time period. Identify whether descriptions will be clear to most people in your audience or whether they assume a certain cultural background. For example, if you compare the shape of something to a football, that could mean something different for people in Europe than for people in the US.

Examples:

Use:

students from outside the US

Avoid:

foreign students

Use:

Join us for lunch, where we will be sampling a range of international foods.

Avoid:

ethnic foods

Use:

Researchers created a sensor about the size of a bottle cap.

Avoid:

size of a nickel


When to use "diverse"

Background:

“Diverse” means differing from one another or having different elements. A group can be diverse with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability, occupation, nationality, and immigration status, among other factors. Some people mistakenly use “diverse” to refer to a group that includes underrepresented people or people from a nondominant group. For example, while it may be notable in a certain context to see a group composed entirely of women, that group would not be diverse in terms of gender.

In most cases, a singular noun isn't diverse unless it contains multiple parts that can differ from one another. For example, a population can be diverse because it contains people who differ from one another. But a person or image usually isn't diverse, because neither contains distinct elements that vary.

Recommendation:

Use “diverse” when referring to something that contains unlike elements or to things or people that differ from one another. Do not use it for an individual, and do not use it as a euphemism for “composed of members of a usually underrepresented group” or “not the dominant group.” If it is not clear from the context, define the kind of diversity you’re referring to. For a walk-through of when to use "diverse," see this flowchart from Radical Copyeditor.

Examples:

Use:

We strive for a diverse pool of candidates.

Avoid:

a diverse candidate

Use:

The article had a photo at the top showing racially diverse laboratory staff.

Avoid:

a diverse image

Use:

The coalition of women professors was racially diverse.

Avoid:

was diverse


General resources

For more guidance on inclusive language, see the resources below. Also see resources listed at the end of each chapter for resources specific to certain topics.