6 Tips for Writing Without Bias

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When I develop learning material, I’m trying to produce something all learners can connect with. Offending learners is a sure way to fail. While I’d never intentionally offend anyone, biases lurking unnoticed in the back of my mind and embedded in the English language can easily slip into my work. This article will look at some of the things we can do expose these biases for what they are and keep them out of what we write.

6 Tips for Writing Without Bias

1. Explore your unconscious biases

“But I’m not biased!” I exclaim in response to this tip. Except that I am, of course. I’d have difficulty navigating the world around me if I were entirely unbiased.

Unconscious bias is unnoticed, unintentional and a natural reaction of the human brain when surrounded by information.

Evaluating evidence (especially when it is complex or ambiguous) requires a great deal of mental energy. To save us from becoming overwhelmed, our brains have a natural tendency to take shortcuts. Unconscious bias – also known as cognitive bias – refers to how our mind can take shortcuts when processing information. This saves time when making decisions, which is especially helpful when we’re under pressure and need to meet deadlines.

Biases affect all aspects of human cognition, from financial decision making to social interactions. In this article, I’ll focus most on the social biases that are often encoded in language: “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.”

If bias is innate, how can we eliminate it, or at least reduce it, in our writing? Awareness is the key. When we become conscious of previously unconscious biases, we can face them, analyze them and discard them.

If you’re ready to learn more about your own biases, or if you’re still certain you’re free of bias and would like to prove it, try the Implicit Association Test (IAT) at Harvard’s Project Implicit. Taking the IAT can be an uncomfortable experience, revealing things we didn’t know and don’t particularly like about our thinking. However, it can also be a first step to clearer thinking and resolving biases that can creep into our writing.

2. Include only relevant descriptors or labels

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Culture
  • Socio-economics
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ability
  • Age
  • Education
  • Politics

The first thing to ask yourself when mentioning related characteristics is, ‘Is this relevant?’ Irrelevant labels tend to reinforce stereotypes. Either they repeat the stereotype, giving it more recognition, or contradict it, implying that non-stereotypical associations are exceptional. Labels or descriptors with no relevance should be avoided.

Equally, relevant descriptions should be included. If a person’s race, gender, religion, education or other trait is a factor in the issue you’re discussing, don’t ignore it. It’s all a matter of context.

3. Use self-chosen terms when referring to identities or labels

The golden rule of identities is to respect what people call themselves (when possible – it’s not unusual for individuals to disagree on appropriate terminology for shared traits). Taking the golden rule into account, other tips for labels include:

Ensure the term you use is appropriate for all the people you are describing.

African American may be an appropriate term for a specific individual or group, but if you’re speaking in a worldwide context it’s necessary to recognize that most Black people aren’t American.

Avoid terms that are emotive or imply judgement

  • Say adults over 75 rather than old or elderly
  • Use has Multiple Sclerosis rather than suffers from Multiple Sclerosis

Avoid using nouns as labels

  • Refer to gay men, never gays

Use person-first language when appropriate

Person-first language puts the person in front of the identity. It’s often phrased as “person with…”, such as a person with a developmental delay as opposed to a developmentally delayed person.

Remember that the golden rule overrides the tips above. For example, many autistic people prefer the identity-first term autistic person to the person-first person with autism.

4. Avoid generalizations, especially about identities

Whatever trait people may share, you’d be hard-pressed to find any group of individuals with homogenous characteristics or opinions. Generalized statements, such as saying that a certain culture values independence, are therefore problematic. A simple qualifier can justify your statement. ‘Some’ is your friend here. However, the best option is to be specific and do your research. ‘A large study conducted by XYZ found that 68% of people identifying as belonging to this culture rated independence as important or very important.’

Generalizations can also interfere with accurate identification of a group. Confusion and offence can arise when descriptions are not sufficiently specific. For example:

  • If your cultural study is about Japanese people, don’t use it to make conclusions about Asian culture.
  • How do you define ‘the poor’? Do all members of your audience agree? If you’re discussing poverty, it’s better to refer to a specific income level than to use the term ‘poor’.

5. Use gender-neutral language

English is a living language and, like all living things, it’s in a constant state of change. One of the changes occurring over the past few decades is a shift away from gendered language. Words using ‘man’ to refer to mixed gender groups should be avoided. A bit of thought will usually reveal a graceful alternative, including:

  • Fire fighter for fireman
  • Sewer cover for manhole cover
  • Chair or chairperson for chairman

Differentiated words for males and females, especially in the professions, also appear to be on the way out. Some are already long gone – I don’t think anyone would refer to a female G.P. as a doctrix. Others are in the process of change, such as actor, which is now widely preferred for thespians of any gender.

Pronouns, especially in instructions, examples and scenarios, can also provoke gender assumptions. Options for neutral language include:

  • Using they, them and their as singular pronouns, a practice that is now widely accepted
  • Making the statement plural so you can use the non-gendered they, them and their
  • In a series of examples, varying the gender of the pronouns used in a way that does not confirm gender stereotypes. Note that some people may still be offended by this approach, especially if they’re looking at a few details and missing the big picture.

I’ve also seen suggestions that writers use newly minted neutral pronouns such as zi and hir or refer to humans as it, but I wouldn’t recommend these options for general use at this point. New pronouns are so varied and not (yet?) accepted widely enough to be easily understood, while using it for people remains likely to offend.

6. Recruit a proofreader

Every writer knows the value of a good proofreader. Ask your proofreaders to check for all things unintended – bias as well as typos. Seek diversity in proofreaders to increase the chances you’re getting your work reviewed by someone who has a different set of unconscious biases than you.

Conclusion

It’s a real challenge to write without (or at least with less) bias when our biases are so often unconscious. We can begin to meet the challenge by exploring unconscious biases, using caution and consideration with identities and labels, avoiding generalizations, favoring gender neutral language and asking colleagues to check for anything we’ve overlooked. Do you have any tips for reducing bias in your writing?

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.

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