Writing for rights: Five pitfalls to avoid

8 Mar

Words are for free. And yet, they are loaded with meaning.

As writers exclusively working with the not-for-profit sector, we are conscious of the impact of the words we use. Words shape perceptions and opinion. Words signal to another that you’re of the same mind, or not.

Many not-for-profits that we work with have the programme and the fundraising teams working in separate bubbles. The programme team feels that the fundraising team dumbs down issues and strips it of nuance. The fundraising team feels that the programme team weighs down words with jargon so that it doesn’t make sense to a lay reader.

In much of the fundraising copy of the 80s globally, and the 90s and early 2000s in India, images and words were used to elicit sympathy. They spoke of sadness, wretchedness and urged the donor to lift the person out of that state. While most fundraising has thankfully moved on to using positive images – both visual and verbal – some things remain the same.

Just this week I got a call from a tele-calling agency that took me back to the 80s in the words used and most importantly, in the tone of the caller. The caller painted an overtly purple picture of a child that needed my help, right now.

Hence, to writers of fundraising and tele-calling copy everywhere: Here are five things to keep in mind.

  1. Do not take away agency.

“Geeta is an AIDS victim.”

The use of the word “victim” implies powerlessness and denies agency. Individuals and communities have the power to make decisions for themselves and to bring about change in their own lives, with a little help.

Do write, instead:

Geeta has AIDS”, or “Geeta lives with HIV”, as appropriate.

This states facts and doesn’t strip away Geeta’s dignity.

  1. Do not distort meaning.

“Geeta was fired from her job because of her sexual preference.”

The use of the word “preference” implies that how one identifies is a preference, a choice, or worse, a luxury.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta was fired from her job because of her sexual orientation.”

“Geeta was born a man, but identifies as a woman.”

  1. Do not impose judgment.

“Geeta and her friends were promiscuous.”

The use of the word promiscuous, to indicate sexual behaviour, comes loaded with a certain moral framework. Even where the writer may not necessarily share this moral framework, it’s possible to continue using these words and phrases because they are such a common part of language as it’s used by the general public and the media.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta and her friends had multiple sexual partners.”

This is much more direct and factual, without the weight of morality.

  1. Do not make objects of people.

“Geeta works with the disabled.”

The use of such a phrase strips away any identity that people might have other than the disability that they have. Surely there’s much more to a person than the disability they are born with, or live with? This is a pet peeve that objectifies people, and is often used by people who passionately advocate for the cause of people with disability.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta works with people with disability.”

This acknowledges that the people are people first; that they have a disability is a part of them, but not all of them.

  1. Do not attribute more – or less – weight to actions.

“Geeta decided to get rid of the baby.”

Phrases such as these are implicit with the judgment that abortion is a casual decision. It’s also inaccurate, tilting the meaning against the woman’s right to choice.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta decided to have an abortion.”

“Geeta decided to end the pregnancy.”

We’ll throw in an extra one, for good measure. This is for people who design materials for non-profits.

  1. Do not cram in every sq cm of space with words.

While we understand that print space is expensive, resist the temptation to fill every square cm. Keep in mind that a reader’s eyes can easily glaze over column after column of tightly packed text! Give the reader a chance to take in what you’ve just written, breathe, and form an opinion.

Do, instead:

Let the words breathe. Give them some white space.

As Mark Twain said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

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