Writing for Diverse Audiences

Writing for TLI’s Diverse Readers: Principles and Practices

A Writing Guide by the Teaching & Learning Inquiry Editorial Team

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Teaching & Learning Inquiry (TLI) values and showcases the breadth of the interdisciplinary field of SoTL in its explicit methodological pluralism, call for traditional and new genres, and international authorship, as articulated in the journal’s Focus and Scope. TLI welcomes submissions from all disciplines, nations, research traditions, institution types, career stages, and perspectives related to teaching, learning, and SoTL. Authors in TLI are encouraged to value this broad readership through writing that is accessible, inclusive, and inviting in both style and substance.

This approach to writing speaks to a diversity of readers, allowing them to see themselves reflected in the subject matter and more easily recognize its relevance to themselves and their contexts. It invites readers to engage with ideas directly and constructively. It aims to eliminate language and assumptions that might alienate or exclude readers based on where they are and how they identify. (See this brief explanation of inclusive language.)

Teaching & Learning Inquiry’s editorial team offers the principles, practical examples, and suggestions in this guide for material submitted to the journal, so that we may support all who engage with TLI in communicating and engaging in ways that welcome, include, and embrace our diverse communities. We encourage authors to ask one or two colleagues to be their “critical friends” by giving feedback based on these principles and practices before submission to TLI. (See Handal’s “Consultation Using Critical Friends.”)

We ask authors to apply these three principles, which are explained with specific strategies below:

  • writing for an international audience,
  • writing for a multilingual audience, and
  • writing about diverse people.

I.  Writing for an International Audience

Situating research in the world

SoTL is often highly context-specific, and this context shapes a reader’s understanding of the research and its relationship to their own work. Describing the relevant context for a study can help all readers fully access the research and conclusions. This principle prevents faulty assumptions about what readers know and what’s considered normal and taken for granted. After establishing the specific context, authors can then move at strategic points throughout the article to the more generalizable messages that readers might take away.

Academic context

Situate your research within the international conversation on teaching and learning. Start by directly connecting the ideas and issues central in your research with the larger SoTL body of work, including citing international literature. This contextualization is especially helpful when studying local phenomena (e.g., something in a particular classroom/institution), as is common in SoTL. Such context allows authors to build a bridge to readers by highlighting how the project adds to the existing scholarship and why it matters to readers beyond that local context. (See Pat Thomson’s helpful blog post, "‘Internationalising’ a Journal Article.”)

Student demographics

Be descriptive when discussing student demographics. This includes types of students, year of study, type of program, type and size of institution, disciplinary focus of study, and length of degree, as this varies across countries. Aim for language that will be accessible to a broad audience. For example, “Student A is starting their third semester in a four-year undergraduate program.” This can be done concisely to provide relevant details without unnecessarily lengthening the manuscript.

Time

Be as specific as possible, including, for example, months rather than season (e.g., fall, winter), as these vary globally. Describe the length of a course using specific language, such as a 15-week semester.

Location

Be specific in terms of region and country. Phrases such as “regionally” or “in local universities” do not help a reader from another context understand the research.

Setting

Describe the setting of the institution or teaching and learning environment, such as an urban or metropolitan campus located in a densely-populated area or a rural campus located in a sparsely-populated area. If the kind of institution is important, explain why and how it is relevant to the work.

Terminology

Descriptive language within higher education is often specific to a context or geographical region and can vary significantly, even across English-speaking countries. When technical language or discipline-specific terminology is important, define it first for an unfamiliar audience, and then use the term consistently throughout. Here are some words commonly used in SoTL that can have multiple meanings across contexts:

  • “college” / “university” / “higher education”: ‘Higher education’ is widely used to refer to post-secondary / tertiary / third level education and can provide a good starting point. For some, ‘university’ refers to the higher education sector more broadly, but for others it defines a specific type of institution that excludes undergraduate institutions. ‘College’ in the United States typically refers to a tertiary or post-secondary educational institution while in Australia, ‘college’ can refer to a secondary educational institution or a residential building on a higher education campus.
  • year-level: Specific descriptions, such as ‘first-year’ and ‘second-year’ can help clarify. It is also useful to specify the number of years in a degree. The United States has specific terms for students by year, such as sophomore or junior. In most other countries, however, these are unfamiliar.
  • “faculty” / “staff”: In some parts of the world, ‘faculty’ is an organisational part of the university, usually within disciplinary fields, such as Faculty of Law. In the US, the term ‘faculty’ typically refers to those who teach and conduct research, whereas ‘staff’ often refers to those who do not teach or conduct research—although even this distinction is variable. ‘Staff’ in other locations refers to anyone employed by an institution whether in academic or professional roles.
  • institution type: Countries classify their institutions in different ways, often in relation to the emphasis on research versus teaching. For example, research-intensive in Australia or R1 in the United States are institutions in which research is a major focus of the institution. Other country-specific terms describe groupings of universities, such as the Group of Eight in Australia or the Russell Group in the United Kingdom. Similarly, community colleges, technical colleges, tribal colleges, HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and liberal arts colleges are common in the US but not in other countries.
  • acronyms: Define a term or acronym when you first use it, such as European Research Council (ERC) or American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and briefly introduce the organization to provide context for an international audience. Try to avoid informal words or phrases that you use in everyday speech, such as slang, colloquialisms, abbreviations, and acronyms.

II.  Writing for a Multilingual Audience

The readers of TLI speak many languages and may translate your article before reading it. Readers with visual impairments may use a screen reader to access the content aurally. Using simple, clear prose makes the writing more accessible to everyone. Below are some commonly recommended strategies.

Simplify long sentences

Consider rearranging, rewording, or dividing sentences that are long and complex. Try reading a sentence out loud, listening to it using a screen reader, or asking a colleague to read it for clarity. If you keep long sentences, write them as clearly as possible with correct punctuation, to aid in comprehension.

Simplify phrases

Aim for writing that is concise. Condense phrases such as “in order to,” “for the purpose of,” and “in regard to” to “to,” “for,” and “concerning.”

Simplify verb formats

Simplify language when possible. For example, avoid unnecessary nominalizations by using “use” instead of “utilize” or “enact” instead of “operationalize.”

Simplify grammatical structures

Some grammatical forms that are common in English are not used in other languages and do not translate easily. Double negatives, for example, can convey the opposite meaning to speakers of language such as Spanish where a second negative can serve to intensify the meaning of the first negative. For instance, the phrase “not uncommon” could translate to “very rare” instead of “common,” so replacing it with “common” avoids confusion. Similarly, false subjects or expletives such as “it is” or “there are” require the reader to connect “it” and “there” to the actual subject of the sentence, which can be challenging for those who are not native-English speakers. Phrasal verbs, formed out of multiple words, are similarly problematic. “Reduce,” for example, is syntactically simpler than “cut back.”

Use active voice

This is good advice for all authors. Passive voice is often wordy and ambiguous. For example, the passive sentence, “It has been demonstrated that learning can be promoted by student engagement” can be replaced with “Researchers have demonstrated that student engagement promoted learning” or even “Student engagement promotes learning (cite relevant research).” Even better, the previous sentence can read

For example, “Researchers have demonstrated that student engagement promoted learning” or even “Student engagement promotes learning (cite relevant research)” can replace the passive sentence, “It has been demonstrated that learning can be promoted by student engagement.”

Idioms

These can be so ubiquitous that we sometimes don’t even realize we are using them. For example, references to “skating on thin ice” may appear obvious in terms of meaning but for other readers may seem out of place and confusing. Additionally, some idioms have origins that might be offensive. For example, “rule of thumb” purportedly originated from 18th-century English law that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than his thumb.

III.  Writing about Diverse People

When writing about students and other people as part of research involving human participants, frame the study’s researchers, participants, and contexts by explicitly stating demographic details that are relevant to the inquiry and findings of the project, and by using terms that they might use to describe themselves. Below are some examples of intentionally inclusive revisions incorporating language appropriate at the time of writing of this guide (2020). Original language and revisions are highlighted in bold.

Gender

In English, singular pronouns often define gender and historically, some writers use “he” as a generic pronoun to represent all people. Here are suggestions for gender-neutral language.

Original   Revision
When an engineering student undertakes such an activity, he typically does so with reluctance.   When an engineering student undertakes such an activity, they typically do so with reluctance.
     
When an engineering student undertakes such an activity, he or she typically does so with reluctance.   Engineering students typically undertake such an activity with reluctance.

In the first example, the masculine pronoun “he” makes the implicit assumption that engineering students are typically men, which reinforces existing stereotypes. Using the masculine pronoun for a heterogeneous group is similar to writing about “the forefathers of the field,” rather than “the founders of the field.” The widespread recognition of “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun offers a contemporary simple solution. (See, for example, statements from the Oxford English DictionaryAmerican Psychological Association, and Merriam-Webster dictionary.)

In the second example, using the singular pronouns “he or she” represents a gender binary that is now recognized as restrictive (i.e., it suggests that a person can be only male or female). Fortunately, unless referring to a specific person whose self-selected gender identity is known, these pronouns are often unnecessary.

Disability

When discussing people with disabilities, use language that does not define a person by their disability. The following revisions focus on the person, rather than the disability.

Original   Revision
The blind student had trouble accessing the online resources.   The student with a visual impairment had trouble accessing the online resources.
     
The disabled person   The person with a disability
     
The mentally ill person   The person with a mental illness

Race/ethnicity

Where appropriate to report race or ethnicity, aim to be precise. In the examples below, the revisions avoid setting up whiteness as the norm and use terms that are specific and used by the groups being described.

Original   Revision
All non-white students showed significant learning gains.   All Chinese students showed significant learning gains.
     
Hispanic students   Cuban students.....

These terms have complicated histories, so checking with members of the relevant ethnic or racial groups can mitigate uncertainty. For example, using ‘Indigenous’ may be appropriate in some contexts, but the word ‘indigenous’ itself broadly refers to the original inhabitants of a given land. For example, in the Australian context, ‘Aboriginal Australian students’ is the commonly used term, rather than ‘Indigenous students’ as it is specific to the country in question.

Sexual orientation

The acronym LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, with the + indicating the inclusion of the many additional diverse ways in which people can identify) is currently in wide use to inclusively describe a broad spectrum of sexual identities. Aim to use the language a group or individual uses to describe themselves. Additionally, ‘sexual orientation’ is the preferred term at the time of writing of this guide (2020) because ‘sexual preference’ implies that sexuality is a choice.

Original   Revision
Gay staff members felt a sense of isolation on campus because of their sexual preference.   Staff members identifying as LGBTQIA+ felt a sense of isolation on campus because of their sexual orientation.
     

Some of the examples in the above section were adapted from this article by Elite Editing, this blog by Hanna Golota, this discussion by Rene Tetzner, and this guide from the University of Leicester. These useful resources expand on the above overview in more detail.

Conclusion

We hope this guide has offered useful principles and advice for writing for the diverse readership of Teaching & Learning Inquiry, and beyond. We have done our best to articulate Principles in these spaces are, appropriately, always evolving, so we’ve aimed to identify the most recent and relevant principles for mid-2020, the time this guide was written. If you have any feedback on this guide or recommendations for updates or alterations, we welcome your contributions.

We look forward to seeing how this guide is applied in future contributions to TLI and its readers.

[ View a PDF of this Guide below, or download it here. ]