Accessible Sustainable Writing: Tips for Writing to Include the Masses
by kelcie ottoes
I grew up in a home where we didn’t believe in climate change. We didn’t have nice things to say about Al Gore. And, my science classes competed for my least favorite classes against math every year. There was something about sustainability, climate change, and science that felt inaccessible and boring to me.
But, there were major turning points in my life that made me realize climate change isn’t something you believe in – it’s something that’s happening regardless of what you, or anyone else, believes.
I met people in college who I regarded as incredibly intelligent, and their undeniable belief in climate change made me question what I believed.
In an environmental science class my professor had to coddle her sophomores who were freaking out because she told us there would be irreversible damage and consequences to the planet if we didn’t make significant changes to the way the world ran.
I began to notice the waste, the pollution, the smog, the heat, and the extreme weather patterns. After one summer of continuous fires I decided enough was enough. I had gone from someone who didn’t believe in climate change to someone who had decided to dedicate her career to combating it.
Today, I am a copywriter for sustainable brands.
But, one might ask… how? How did I go from not believing to caring so much? And how can we replicate that to get others voting in alignment, working to hold major carbon emitters accountable, and living a more zero waste lifestyle?
It starts with a story about a whale, and it ends with sharing more stories like it – stories that are sustainable, empathetic, and accessible to all of us.
The Story of a Whale
There was once a whale named Tahlequah who gave birth to a calf in 2018. Unfortunately the calf didn’t make it and died an hour or so after the birth. The mother, in unimaginable grief to many of us, wasn’t ready to let her baby go.
When orcas die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean. Rather than let her calf sink, Tahlequah nudged her calf to the surface of the ocean to keep it afloat.
If she did this for one day it would’ve been moving. If she did it for a handful of days, it would’ve been tragic and remarkable. With help from her pod, Tahlequah kept her calf afloat for 17 days. This dedication to keeping her calf afloat was coined the “tour of grief” and lasted for one thousand of miles.
Her tour garnered the attention of a lot of folks. At the time, the pod had gone five years without a successful birth and had been on the endangered species list for 13 years. One of the main issues was that orcas can’t find enough fish to eat. Unfortunately, their food, Chinook salmon, is also on the endangered species list. Couple that with noise pollution and toxic pollutants, and there’s a lot stacked against this whale population.
Tahlequah prompted local and regional governments and people to take action. One dam was taken down on the Elwha River to increase the salmon population in the pod’s habitat. In 2020, Tahlequah had another calf, known as J57, a male who is happy and healthy.
This story has stuck with me since the day I heard it. Every time I see the photo of the mother whale, holding her dead child to the surface, my heart breaks. Beyond Tahlequah’s incredible performance, why is this story one that moves us towards fighting climate change?
One that nags in the back of my head when I try to take a break, urging me to push a little further?
Why was it one to bring down dams?
Afterall, these whales had been endangered for 13 years before we could get one dam down.
Make Sustainable Information Accessible
This story made an impact on so many people because it was accessible.
When I say accessible, what I mean is that most folks were able to hear, understand, and re-tell this story so others could understand it. Did you know that the average reading level for an American is a 5th grade reading level? When we’re writing about climate change, we need to recognize who we’re keeping the story from when using high level academia style writing.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a version of this story that includes whale anatomy, or complex diction that anyone who made it to 5th grade wouldn’t know.
“A whale’s calf died and the mother carried it for 17 days.”
You could tell it to anyone, and then they could tell it to their mom later on the phone.
“Hey, did you hear about the whale?”
By making the information readable for those with a lower reading level, we can help them access the story, and we can help them share it with others. Another story about a sea creature that stuck with all of us was, “Have you seen the video of the turtle getting a straw pulled out of its nose?”
So, beyond avoiding academic, inaccessible jargon, how do you make your stories accessible?
Shorten your sentence lengths. When you write longer, more complex sentences, there’s a chance of losing your readers. One great tool you can use to find out if your sentences are too complex is hemingwayapp.com. This website will tell you if your sentences are hard to read, or very hard to read.
When it comes to talking about complex subjects (this is sustainability, it’s unavoidable), make content that acts as a building block for more complex subjects. By providing readers with all the information, rather than assuming they know, or that they will Google terms outside of the 5th grade reading level, will help them access the information easier. When you don’t create building block information, you put the burden on the reader to find the information they don’t have.
And, the truth of the matter is, they likely aren’t going to seek out unknown information unless they’re really interested.
Last, keep in mind that as human beings, we communicate in stories. Tahlequah’s deep sorrow and strength led Americans to action. When we hear her story, we can’t help but think, “I have to do something. Anything.” In that desire to help we have the opportunity to influence the future.
It’s a different story than, “Whales are going extinct and are currently on the endangered species list for a multitude of reasons.”
I wish the second story inspired action, but unless you’re an oceanographer or a whale scientist, it likely doesn’t.
Empathy: We’re All Tired of Doom Scrolling
One way storytelling went wrong in the sustainable world is that we became hyper focused on the worst of the worst of what could happen. Seas rising, animals going extinct, populations competing for resources, and death are all very real, genuine concerns.
But you’re placing those concerns up against institutionalized racism, mass murders due to lack of gun control and regulations, and widespread mental health in decline.
We’re physically incapable of caring deeply about all of these things. And, the unfortunate truth is that we simply don’t want to be inconvenienced. We can doom scroll and then go to bed knowing that our life is ok, and sleep. Couple that with the inability to see a way forward, especially when working on an issue that’s hard to understand, and most people give up.
We doom scroll because we’re desensitized. Doom isn’t working. If it was working, we would’ve saved the planet by now, because there’s plenty of doom to go around. Instead, we have to find ways to lead with opportunities, stories, and tangible ways forward.
How do we help save the whales? We take the damn down.
How do we help save the sea turtles? We stop using straws.
How do we reduce the number of single occupancy, gas operated vehicles on the road? We take public transportation, buy an EV, ride our bikes, or grab a ride with a friend.
Saving whales, sea turtles, and reducing the gas emissions on our planet aren’t as simple as those steps. But those steps get us started, and those first steps have a likelihood of inspiring other changes.
How can we make our stories empathetic and actionable?
Inclusivity: Worry About the Planet, Not the Grammar
I’m about to tell some of you something that’s going to make you uncomfortable, but I hope you sit with it for a minute… Your grammar policing is a racist, classist, outdated and oppressive practice.
The point of communication is to share a story. If the story is still communicated from one person to the next, then we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to do – communicate information.
Correcting folks who write or talk differently than “Standard American English” is actually keeping others from feeling confident in telling stories and sharing experiences. What you’re telling them is that sustainability stories are not for them, and they shouldn’t be a part of them. And, we need everyone.
Rather than focusing on the grammar, focus on creating a space for diverse voices to speak up, especially considering that marginalized voices are the most likely to be affected by climate change. When we make room for diverse voices, and allow folks to code mesh over code switch, we include more people in the story of sustainability and climate change.
And, again, we need all of us.
Accessible, Empathic, and Inclusive Sustainable Writing Can Change the World
When you remember the reasons you decided to get involved in combating climate change, what stories come to mind?
Did you get tired of surfing with trash in the ocean?
Did you lose your home to an unexpected wildfire?
Did you hear that bees were going extinct and planted 100 flowers in your front yard instead of grass?
Chances are, your stories are as straightforward as mine. A whale kept her dead calf afloat for 17 days. The smartest people I’ve ever met believe in climate change. A professor of mine took the time to explain climate change well enough, the whole class panicked.
Its stories like these, that are simple, accessible, easy to re-tell, and inclusive to everyone who hears them, are our biggest asset to reverse climate change. Start making your stories more accessible, and who knows what change it will inspire.
Kelcie Ottoes • Kelcie Ottoes Copywriting