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Write For People: Crafting Compassionate Copy

Words have power. The language we use has the power to unite people or to divide them. We can welcome our readers with a warm expression and turn them away just as quickly with a careless epithet. Deliberate design means carefully considering the words we use and the impact they will have on the people who read them.

We must strive when writing copy (whether for an interface, documentation, or marketing) to avoid phrases that intentionally or inadvertently downplay other genders, races, beliefs, sexualities, and disabilities. This can be as obvious as avoiding phrases like “man up,” “ballsy”, or “<verb>ing like a girl”, but there are many subtle exclusive phrases, too. Calling your product “sexy” or “hot” confuses quality with gender and sexuality. Referring to groups of people as “guys” excludes women (it may be common slang in some places, but not everywhere), and referring to women as “girls” diminishes women as child-like.

Check your assumptions

Not too long ago, Dr. Louise Selby was denied entry to the locker room at her new gym. She learned that the membership software had been written assuming that anyone with the title ‘Dr.’ was male. Assumptions, in some ways, are good. Assumptions help us process the vast amount of information we take in every day very quickly. But assumptions often lead us astray, too. When writing for a broad audience, you must challenge your assumptions and question whether the words you gravitate toward convey what you mean to everyone.

Let’s get specific

It’s easy to say that you should check your assumptions, but not so easy to know when something is an assumption. Here are some things to consider when you’re writing:

  • Use plain language. Choose words that everyone can understand. This helps readers with high literacy as much as readers with low literacy. Writing in plain language can improve reading speed and comprehension, as well as reduce support requests.
  • Avoid idioms, slang, and colloquialisms. While these words and phrases can add colorful flair, they can also be inscrutable for people who aren’t familiar with them. Slang can sometimes be offensive. If you absolutely must use a slang word or phrase, make sure to research its meaning(s) on Urban Dictionary beforehand. Even the most innocent-sounding phrases can hide a potential land mine.
  • Tread lightly with humor. Sarcasm, satire, and other forms of humorous writing are harder to decipher as humor in text alone. Consider whether your funny writing would be considered offensive if taken literally.
  • Think people-first, not descriptor-first. Placing a descriptive term ahead of “people” implies that they are defined solely by that term. For instance, saying “disabled people” implies that their disability defines their status as people, while saying “people with disabilities” implies they are people first, who may also have disabilities. It’s a subtle difference, but it can prevent readers from mentally bucketing people with different backgrounds as different from themselves. Similarly, when comparing groups of people, refrain from referring to one group as “normal”.
  • Rethink interaction terms.Click Here” is a useless phrase. It gives no context for what lies beyond or what action you may be taking. On top of that, for some people, their preferred method of input doesn’t use a mouse at all. Whether they use a keyboard, a touch-enabled mobile device, or another input method entirely, “clicking” is something they won’t be doing. Similarly, don’t always assume that your readers (or listeners) will “view more” information.
  • Research the history of significant words in your copy before committing to them. Did you know that “hysteria” literally stems from the Greek term for uterus and was used to ascribe certain mental health problems to women for millenia? While you may not need to research most common words, be sure you know whether your most impactful words have a dark history.
  • Consider words outside of their context. A “crazy good deal” sounds great, right? For a reader with mental health concerns, it can trigger an entirely different response. Consider the descriptors you use outside of the words they describe and think about how they might make others feel.
  • Reframe individuals as groups or use “they” as a non-gendered singular pronoun. When you write in the third person, there will be times when you need to consider pronouns. A designer must choose his words carefully. Note how that last sentence could imply that designers are more likely to be men OR that male designers are more likely to choose words poorly. With one sentence, you could be offending both male and female designers. Therefore, designers must choose their words carefully.
  • Use gender neutral titles and terms. Instead of fireman, say firefighter. Instead of mankind, say humanity. This can be applied to any number of other professions and terms.

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