There is (rightly) a trend at the moment to pay attention to inclusive writing. When we talk about this, it usually means including characters who represent the wider community in terms of race, sexuality and ability. You may be aware of big-name authors having controversial viewpoints on such matters, but, if you want to start at the grass-roots level with inclusive writing, you need to consider issues which affect the widest proportion of readers. And by readers, I mean everyone who currently reads, as well as the 20% of people for whom reading is a challenge.
I’m talking about dyslexia.
I’m a children’s writer and also a historical thriller / historical fantasy novels author; I’m also a mother, a school volunteer, and probably dyslexic. This last fact is officially unofficial. I’m undiagnosed, not labelled, and not particularly noticed for most of my non-authoring career, but, now I know what I’m looking for, I think I’ve been living with moderate dyslexia without really knowing it until I started writing. That might not seem relevant until you read on, but it is because I’m just one of many. I’m not ‘qualified’ in diagnosing dyslexia, but, through the course of research and experience, reading with children in schools and understanding this is not a new problem, just one we have a name for now, I have also learned something about how writers can support readers. I’d like to share these ideas with you so that as writers, your work can be more inclusive of people like me.
Playing the odds.
Statistically, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people (of every age/race/gender) a reading disability affects because frequently people remain undiagnosed. Estimates vary but roughly speaking, dyslexia affects 15-20 percent of the population, yet it also represents 80–90 percent of all those with learning disabilities. It is the most common of all neuro-cognitive disorders. Screening for dyslexia often doesn’t happen in schools until children are over 8. Maybe older, maybe never.
This is relevant because embedding a love of reading in children happens from a much younger age and, believe me, it’s an uphill battle if your child ‘hates’ reading. It could be that there is an underlying cause, such as dyslexia or another form of learning disability, which holds them back from enjoying escaping into a book or being able to study. I have a hunch that undiagnosed dyslexia is one reason more adults don’t read for pleasure as well – which is why writers for all age-groups should take note.
So, the odds are, every fifth person you meet today has some form of dyslexia ranging from mild (possibly wouldn’t notice, makes little difference to their daily lives) to severe (resulting in avoiding reading/writing at all costs because frankly, it’s just too damned hard).
Tailoring your writing for inclusivity makes good business sense.
When you publish, you want to reach as wide an audience as possible for your work. More readers equals more sales. Now, I’m not suggesting that you change the way that you write, just to consider how it is presented, for example. As authors, especially indie authors, marketing a book is intrinsic. Whilst every reader has different tastes, genres and styles they prefer, wouldn’t it be better to ensure that your book doesn’t give them a reason to put it back on the shelf? It’s not so much about tailoring, as inclusivity. You may even find in this fast paced, visual and social media driven world, being able to say my book is dyslexia-friendly could also be another string to your bow. If you can highlight the reasons why everyone can ‘read’ your book it can only help sales.
5 Inclusive ideas to keep reading fun and frustration at bay.
For the purposes of trying to encourage reading from an early age, these ideas below are more tailored towards writing for children, but, there are some simple solutions which might help those writing for an adult market as well. My intention is for you to consider how to make reading less onerous, fun even, for both children and adults.
- Comics are actually perfect for dyslexics – the speech bubbles make it clear who is talking in small chunks of dialogue. A picture helps them to understand what is happening in the action. They are pacy, moving the story along a frame at a time in a precursor to a TV show. You might think because they have fewer words their value as reading aids is less; in fact, what they can teach is inference – what moved the action from point A to point B? They are also wonderful for youngsters on the autistic spectrum because facial expressions tend to be exaggerated, making it easier for children to identify which face being pulled equates to telling us what that character is feeling.
Plus, comics are historically fun – there’s an element of nostalgia there for grown ups. Funny means more reading! Check out Dave Pilkey’s Dogman or Captain Underpants series and I challenge you not to chortle as much as your child will! (P.S. Pilkey is also a dyslexic Mega-Author!)
If you flick through early reader books (aimed at ages 4-8) you’ll see the text is broken up into smaller chunks, often with an image – this helps keep the daunting task of a block of text manageable for those with smaller attention spans.
Chunk it down!
Idea for writing for adults – could you write less blocky paragraphs? Shorter chapters? Use dialogue more for exposition?
Typography is a science, it truly is. Without realising it, adults subliminally react to typefaces in different ways – we identify ‘business’ fonts, romantic swirls and cartoon-esque ones as being humorous. The same psychological effect is true for dyslexics and special fonts have been created which ‘weight’ the letters subtly. It gives just enough shape to help a reader identify which letter (and thus sound) should be said. Less mixing up of b and d, m or n! Books which use dyslexia-friendly font are becoming more and more common – just search on Amazon!
Surveys suggest that over 50% of dyslexics find using a special font or even just a ‘serif’ font helps them with reading. This is why times new roman endures as one of the most popular font for books and newspapers, because of the rounded letters with their weighted serifs (the little projection which finishes the line of a letter). When you are in a bookshop, flick through the books and look out for ones which use ‘serif’ fonts, or even better, weighted fonts like Dyslexie, especially if you are purchasing for a child you suspect may have dyslexia.
Top tip – you can download a free version of OpenDyslexie and use it on your own device – why not test it out if you find it easier to read with?
If you are a parent looking to support a child reading, or yourself even, for a relatively cheap and simple solution, try out a pack of coloured overlays. These thin strips of tinted transparent plastic (often index card size) can reduce words ‘moving’ on the page or bring out the letters so they are clearer to read. They can be used as a ruler to help keep place on a page. The different tints suit different people which is why you often purchase them in a rainbow of colours. My son, for example prefers the blue, whereas I know children who swear by the yellow or purple! Often, dyslexics find a yellow or lightly coloured paper is easier to read on, so overlays offer a simple remedy to standard white backing paper. Some books can be ordered as a dyslexia edition which are printed on more yellowed paper as a minimum. Again, if you are in a bookshop, flick through the pages and opt for ones where the text is not against a white background.
Writing for adults? Try changing your paper choice to the cream option if you are publishing novels – even just the slightest tint makes a difference. Alternatively, why not do a dyslexia friendly edition with yellow paper if you are doing a large print run?
The thing I ask myself is, if I weren’t dyslexic, would it bother me if the paper in a book was yellow? I don’t think it would – in fact, a quick flick through my shelves of paperbacks shows me, I have somehow gravitated towards books which are printed on creamier stock rather than white paper for long before I even thought about this as a writer!
4. Audio and e-books
The surge in popularity of audio books is proof that people want to access stories even if they don’t or can’t read a physical book. Many children enjoy listening and following the words along the page simultaneously. Remember that it’s not just about the act of reading, but showing that stories can be fun!
Audible has a wide selection of free books for children to listen to, as do other audiobook providers. The BBC Sounds app for example has a wide selection of classics old and new recorded which are wonderful.
If you publish ebooks, Kindle/Nook devices feature text to speech functions which can be selected from accessibility options by the reader, as well as changing the font size and type (yes, Dyslexie is one of the fonts a reader can select – no need for you change anything, the e-reader has already provided you with a means of inclusive writing!).
If you haven’t considered making your book an actual audio book – consider it. Not only are you missing out on a massive marketplace, but also the options for audiobook creation have expanded with the use of A.I. as well as more options for hiring a human narrator. It does take time and possibly investment, but being able to offer more formats to read your book will pay dividends. Also, as the market grows, so does the way in which people access verbal stories; even music providers like Spotify, now feature audiobooks Some authors narrate their books on YouTube – sometimes the whole novel!
Additionally, most libraries now offer ebooks and audio books on loan via their app (Libby, Borrowbox for example). In a budget conscious time, I have high hopes that there will be a resurgence in supporting local libraries and thus authors. Is your book available for public lending?
5. Others like me?
Children (and adults, but especially children) want to read books featuring characters which have similar challenges to them. Identifying with the characters engages and encourages them to keep reading. But it’s not just about identifying with a character who is the same age or facing the same issues as the reader, and thus either an extension of them, it’s an element of the escapism which books offer. Seeing how a character tackles the adversities a plot throws at them is a safe way for people to consider how they would react.
Goodreads is an excellent place to find lists of books showcasing, for example, children’s books with dyslexic characters. When you are writing, why not consider adding a character who has a learning disability?
This website has some useful resources on style which you could consider as well https://www.dyslexia-reading-well.com/dyslexia-font.html
I hope these ideas have sparked your imagination about how you can move to being even more inclusive in your writing, and how it makes good business sense to make some simple changes to how you publish. If you have other ideas to share, do drop them in the comments!
For more information about myself and other articles about writing, and writing for children, please see my website www.escapeintoatale.com where you can also find my published books.
This article was originally written for Table Read Magazine and can be found alongside many other useful and interesting resources for writers here.