26 Meet a Member: Ettie Bailey-King

This month, I spoke to award-winning inclusive and accessible communication educator (and general bubbly presence) Ettie Bailey-King about work, words, and metaphorical trout ponds.

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?

Hello! I’m Ettie. I’m a writer and trainer, and I specialise in inclusive and accessible communication. On the inclusive language side, I teach people how to use inclusive language, especially around age, class, gender, disability, nationality, pregnancy, race and sexual orientation. On the accessibility side, I help people write and speak in a way that works better for ADHD, autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic, blind and vision impaired, d/Deaf/hard of hearing, tired, and distracted people. Phew! Basically, I help you write words that work better for everyone.

I write a weekly newsletter about inclusive language and accessibility called Fighting Talk. You can check out past editions like the ultimate ADHD-friendly communication guide, 9 practical ways to be trans-inclusive or my guide to simple writing.

Where did your love of words come from?

Escapism. As a kid, I would lose myself in reading books and writing my own stories. I felt safe and free in those fictional worlds, totally transported out of my reality. 

I drew endless comfort from the way words on a page could take me somewhere else, changing the world around me. It felt like magic. But the more I learn about the science of reading, listening and language processing, the truer I’ve realised it is.

Our words really do help to create reality. They can shape our sensory perceptions – like how fast we think a car is travelling, whether we remember events accurately, who we think is innocent or guilty, how we see the world and what policies we support. 

So I think my love of words comes both from that unreal feeling of fantasy and escapism, as well as a very real sense that words are pulsing with the power to make things happen. 

Side note: I still remember the thrill of finding out that the study of where words come from is called etymology. (Or Ettie-mology: how’s that for nominative determinism?) and being completely obsessed from then on.

To me, word histories feel like treasures buried just below the surface of the earth. Or like a secret message being sent from the past, that you need a key to decode. 

I still remember my delight of finding out that gregarious and egregious come from the same root. They both come from Latin grex, or flock. Someone gregarious is part of the flock. Something egregious stands out of the flock. 

Or the sweetness of uncovering mythological messenger god Hermes’ name inside a seemingly scientific term: hermetically sealed. (Actually the name may not suggest a seal that even Hermes couldn’t get through. It may just be named after the inventor. Boo.)

Other times, it’s the sound of words that enchant me. Galoshes. Sepulchral. Gossamer. Cerulean. Cuspidor. That sense of beauty and playfulness is so important. 

People often tell me that inclusive language seems like a rather joyless, bureaucratic approach to writing. They imagine there’s a dry, dusty set of rules somewhere that decrees: “always say this, never say that.” 

Far from it. inclusive and accessible writing is a creative, joyful and playful practice. It’s about finding words that speak to everyone. You have to think about who’s using those words, why, what actions they’re pairing with their words, who they’re presenting as normal, who they’re marking out as strange, and how you can craft copy that resists and challenges all the -isms (ableism, racism, sexism and so on) while feeling fresh, true and real.  

What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?

I got a message on LinkedIn in February 2023, from Sabine Harnau. Sabine was looking for someone to give a “trade secrets” talk about accessible writing to 26. So I worked with Sabine to design and deliver a workshop to the lovely people of 26. (And I’ve since gone on to work with Sabine separately!) I had no idea there was a community of writers and word lovers that I could have been part of… I joined up right away and have loved being a member ever since. 

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

Not yet! But I’d love to be part of future projects around inclusive language (especially around disability, gender and sexuality) or accessibility (especially neuro-inclusive communication). 

What’s your ideal scenario for writing? (A coffee shop? Quiet retreat? With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?)

Like some rare plant that flowers only on a moonlit night, I can only write comfortably when everything aligns just so. 

I like to have a buzz of activity around me, without anything dramatic happening nearby. I need to feel rested and relaxed, so I don’t over-think my writing. But I also need an immovable deadline, to create mild peril. 

I need lots of sound to keep my brain stimulated, but I mustn’t be able to hear any conversations otherwise I’ll listen shamelessly and possibly ask strangers questions. So I often go to a café to write, because of the soothing hum of busy sounds. Then I block out all those harmonious coffee shop sounds with my noise-cancelling headphones, by playing…  “authentic coffee shop sounds.”

For non-fiction writing, a sharp brief gets me into the right frame of mind. If I have total clarity on what I need to create, for whom, by when, why, and how they’ll use it, my imagination has fewer corridors to run down. So I’m infinitely more likely to get interested by the right problems. And once my imagination gets hooked on an interesting question, it lures me into a flow state and I’ll find myself writing without any sense of time passing.

For fiction and poetry, I need to be possessed by a good idea, or a character I’m desperate to get to know. When that happens, writing is almost effortless. I never plot or plan, I just write and write, almost like I’m taking dictation.

Then, to quote Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, it’s like a crappy little elf has snuck in and written my first draft. And the effortful, awful work of editing begins. Shudder. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on the latest version of Bold Type, my course on inclusive and accessible communication. It’s a course for copywriters and content creators, taking you through the principles of inclusive language and accessibility, so you can communicate in a way that works better for everybody. 

We cover inclusive language around disability, gender, race, and many other issues, plus how to make your writing more accessible to blind, d/Deaf, autistic, ADHD, tired and distracted people (plus many others!) 

I’m also working on a book of short stories about influencer culture, jealousy and life online. I started writing it in 2022 as part of a writing fellowship at the London Library, and I’ve been working on it oh so slowly in between writing my newsletter on Substack. You can read one of the stories from the collection in New Voices Rise, volume 4.

Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of?

I’m particularly proud of a story I wrote called “Feast or Foe.” It’s published in a delicious collection called What She’s Having: Stories of Women and Food

Where do you get your inspiration?

Inspiration doesn’t dart into our lives from nowhere, in my experience. It comes from drawing connections between the things you already know, things that initially seemed disconnected. So I’m always trying to mix things: people who haven’t met each other yet, a genre with a topic that sounds jarring, or a song and a setting that just shouldn’t work together. 

Cross-pollinating ideas doesn’t always lead to gold. A lot of the time, it just leads to more okay-ish ideas. I try to have lots and lots of bad ideas. Because quantity leads to quality. The more you write (or draw, sing or whatever) the less remarkable your inner critic finds it, and the fewer mean things it can say about you, and the less tenacious its grip gets on your imagination. That’s normally when inspiration strikes, for me. Somewhere in between bad idea number 23 and 57. 

Another way I try to invite inspiration into my life is by stocking the trout pond (as Julia Cameron calls it) or filling the well of my imagination. I’d love to say I take myself on artist dates to remarkable places, or that I absorb a lot of dazzling works of art. But I don’t. I spend most of my time snacking and worrying. And I mostly stock the trout pond by eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations or scrolling on social media. If you’re curious about and attentive to the world around you, I think anything can stock your (mental) trout pond. 

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