Accessible writing is for everyone: Interview with inclusive and accessible communication consultant Ettie Bailey-King
Ettie Bailey-King is an inclusive communication consultant who helps organisations make inclusive language part of their voice, make their content super accessible, figure out what’s working through detailed audits, and feel brave, confident and supported as they embed anti-oppression across their communications, marketing and content.
She’ll be sharing her “trade secrets” in a special 26 Trade Secrets workshop on 22 February 2023.
Ahead of the workshop, Sabine Harnau interviewed Ettie to uncover what Ettie and accessible writing are all about.
Hi Ettie, can you tell us more about accessible writing?
Accessible writing might sound technical, but it’s surprisingly straightforward. It just means writing that’s clear, simple, easy to read, understand and remember.
No need to worry about ‘dumbing things down.’ Accessible writing is better writing.
It’s crisp, concise copy that gets straight to the point. Delivers its message. Makes its meaning clear, compelling and memorable. It’s writing at its most powerful. ⚡
Sure, there are some specific tips and tricks you need to know if you’re writing autism, dyslexia, ADHD or anxiety friendly copy.
But ultimately, accessible writing is for everyone.
Whether we’re disabled or neurodivergent, tired or distracted, we all need it.
What makes written content more or less accessible to readers with different needs or abilities?
I use a very simple definition: “accessibility is when everyone gets what they need.”
We all have different needs. We might have:
a permanent impairment or disability (like being blind or deaf),
a temporary impairment (like having a broken wrist, a headache or a hangover),
a situational impairment (like trying to read on your phone outside in bright sunshine, or listen to audio in a noisy room).
On a normal day, we all move in and out of a few of these states.
That affects our working memory, stamina, focus, and how we process information.
It might sound complex, but we don’t need to over-complicate it!
As writers, we’re always creating content for varied accessibility needs. Every time you write an email or a bit of social copy it might go out to:
a blind editor who listens to their emails through a screenreader,
a new parent, who’s sleep deprived (cognitively impaired),
an anxious student who’s worrying about money.
These people are quite different, but they have some overlapping needs.
They all benefit from things like:
breaking up text with bullet points
using frequent subheadings
short and simple words
short and simple sentences
short and simple paragraphs
literal language (avoiding elaborate metaphors and obscure idioms – or giving context to help explain them)
not assuming knowledge.
What are your top tips on how to write for audiences with limited literacy skills, or who may be reading in a second or third language?
1. Trim the fat
Reading takes mental effort. For every additional 100 words on a page, you increase the mental effort needed (cognitive load) by11%.
When we read or listen to a sentence – especially one with subordinate clauses, just like this one, which add information on to the main part of the sentence, but can’t stand alone – we use working memory to remember how the sentence started, and hold that information in mind. Phew.
The longer and more complex a sentence is, the harder it is to process.
So removing unnecessary words and elaborate asides makes your writing easier to read, understand and remember.
Swapping complex words for simple ones, and breaking up longer paragraphs and sentences, helps too.
2. One idea at a time
You might be thinking, “Won’t a load of short sentences lead to dull, repetitive copy full of monosyllables?”
It certainly could do, if we’re not smart about it.
Writers naturally mix longer, flowing sentences with short staccato ones. That’s how we speak, after all. Just make sure that the longer sentences aren’t overflowing with different concepts. One idea at a time.
3. Write for skimming, not reading
We may write with careful consideration, choosing each word one by one, but most people don’t read that way.
Most sighted people scan the page with their eyes. We use short, fast movements (saccades) and pauses (fixations) to get an idea of the words in front of us.
Write for skim readers, not focused ones.
Ask yourself: Would this copy make sense, if someone’s only skimming the page? Would they still know what I mean, if they’re listening while feeding the baby, or buying groceries?
4. Don’t assume knowledge
Jargon, obscure cultural references, idioms and niche jokes can disable people.
I’m not saying we can’t tell jokes, weave puns into our writing or lean on metaphors when we need them. Of course we can!
But think about what gaps that might create between you and your reader.
Ask yourself: can I use this idiom, but also provide a hint of context so my reader can figure it out for themselves?
Some people have a very literal understanding of language, including some autistic people.
See if you can keep language literal, at least in introductions and information-heavy sections. We don’t always need to add colour and flavour through figurative language. Sometimes we can bring drama and pace in, while keeping things literal.
What are some common mistakes or pitfalls?
The curse of knowledge
If we understand something we tend to assume that other people do. Then we skip over important details in our writing, because we think they’re obvious.
Writing for ourselves
When we first put our ideas down on paper, we’re often writing for ourselves. Writing to entertain ourselves, or explore an idea we love.
As accessible writers, we need to be obsessed with end users. And get as close to our readers – their wants, needs and perspectives – as we can.
Some of that is technical (like taking care to avoid double spaces, italic text or serif typefaces, which can disable dyslexic readers). But a lot of it is intuitive.
Ask yourself: would I understand this, if I knew nothing at all about carrots/cryptocurrency/K-pop?
Sticking to convention
The style guide says X, or the senior editor says Y. But what do our readers want and need from us? We need to get confident challenging convention. Because our favourite writing conventions – from long, complex sentences to obscure jargon and idioms – may be disabling people.
How can we become more accessible writers?
Take accessibility seriously, but don’t over-think it.
My favourite tips for accessible writing are:
Strip out tired clichés and obscure idioms. They’re less accessible, but they’re also just boring.
Swap long, complex words for short, simple words. You can still use beautiful and unusual words, just use them like seasoning in a recipe. If you overuse them, they lose their power.
Swap long, complex sentences for short, simple sentences. Aim for no more than 25 words in a sentence. Fewer is usually better. Chop out words like: just, never, always, actually, absolutely, really, completely, very, literally, genuinely, simply, only. You rarely need them.
Follow accessibility best practice. In the workshop, we’ll cover tips like how to write great alt text and image descriptions, using camel case for hashtags, colour contrast, how to write for screenreaders, and how to write an accessible hyperlink.
Be concrete. Humans learn through comparison (we’ll cover this in more detail in the workshop). Writing with a lot of abstract ideas in it can be hard work for a lot of readers. Practise using storytelling, real-life comparisons and concrete examples to make ideas easier to grasp.
What you’ll learn in 26 Trade Secrets: Accessible Writing
Ettie Bailey-King’s interactive workshop will give us a fun, practical introduction to writing more accessibly. We’ll learn about:
How we read What saccades and fixations are, and how to write more readable sentences.
How we think Why stories and concrete images ‘plug in’ to the brain better than more abstract language.
Cognitive load How to make our content easier to read, understand and remember.
Neurodiversity How writing may affect us differently if we’re neurotypical, autistic or have other forms of neurodivergence like ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia.
Numeracy Why numbers and percentages can be tricky for many people, and what to use instead.