How to Write With Specificity and Sensitivity
June 6, 2023

This week’s blog was contributed by Erika Thompson, PAR’s managing production editor. It is the first in an ongoing series on writing. 


As a mental health practitioner, you are required to write throughout your career. One way you can streamline your writing is by using a style guide. At PAR, the house style we use for all our publications is based on American Psychological Association (APA) Style. Over the next few weeks, we’ll provide some useful information about facets of APA Style that will help you tackle research, write better reports, and communicate more effectively with colleagues.  

This week, we’re covering how to write as respectfully and inclusively as possible. According to APA (2020):  

It is unacceptable to use constructions that might imply prejudicial beliefs or perpetuate biased assumptions against persons on the basis of age, disability, gender, participation in research, racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or some combination of these or other personal factors (e.g., marital status, immigration status, religion). (p. 131)  

To prevent biased writing, we must focus on two things: specificity and sensitivity.  

When we write with specificity, we eliminate unconscious attitudes that might sneak into overly general language. Being as precise as possible also allows your research or other scholarly work to reflect the most accurate and helpful information for readers. For example, use exact age ranges versus broad categories of ages, use specific names for racial and ethnic groups versus broad categories (e.g., “Chinese American” vs. “Asian American”), and use specific terms for gender identity and sexual orientation (e.g., “cisgender women,” “bisexual people”). Provide definitions of research groups early, and then stick to the same label throughout the manual: “Participants scoring between X and X on the ANX scale made up the low anxiety group.” “The low anxiety group exhibited no change from test to retest.” 

Writing with sensitivity means writing while acknowledging people’s preferences and their humanity. For example, overgeneralizing by using adjectives as nouns to label groups—for example, “the poor” or “schizophrenics”—eliminates the individuality of the people in those groups. Instead, use adjectival forms or nouns with descriptive phrases, like “poor people” or “individuals with schizophrenia.”  

There are many other areas that require writing with sensitivity: 

  • Gender and sex. Gender is a social construct and a social identity. Sex refers to biological sex assignment, or to sexual behavior. Gender identity (a person’s psychological sense of their gender) is distinct from sexual orientation (who a person is emotionally and/or sexually attracted to). APA strongly encourages us “to explicitly designate information about the gender identities of the participants making up our sample (e.g., whether they are transgender, cisgender, or other gender identities) rather than assuming gender identities” (p. 138). Over the past several years, we’ve also adopted use of the singular “they”—both to identify people who prefer that pronoun and to replace the cumbersome “he or she” construction throughout our writing. 
  • Age. For people of any age, “person” and “individual” are appropriate terms. Use “men,” women,” “transgender women,” “individual,” etc. for adults ages 18 years and older; use “child,” “boys,” “girls,” “infant,” etc. for individuals ages 12 years and younger; and use “adolescent,” “male adolescent,” “youth,” etc. for individuals ages 13 to 17 years. For older adults, preferred terms include “older adults,” “older people,” and “older persons”—not “seniors,” “elderly,” or “the aged.” Language should emphasize that aging is a normal part of life versus an obstacle to be overcome. 
  • Disabilities. There are two ways to write respectfully about people with disabilities. In person-first language, the person is emphasized, not the disability: “person with autism,” “individuals with learning disabilities.” In identity-first language, the disability is the focus, allowing the individual to claim ownership and identity over it: “autistic person,” “learning disabled individuals.” Both are acceptable choices, and the approaches can be mixed. If you know the preference of a particular group, use it! 
  • Race and ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are different, and it’s important to clearly delineate the two when writing about people. “Race refers to physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant….Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs” (APA, 2020, p. 142). Avoid the word “minority” if possible—better options are “people of color” and “underrepresented groups,” or be specific and use a qualifier: “racial minority.” Take care with capitalization and punctuation. “Black,” “White,” “Indigenous,” and “Aboriginal” should be capitalized, and we don’t use hyphens in racial or ethnic modifiers—that is, we write “African American people,” not “African-American people.”  


These are just a few tips and examples of how to improve your writing by focusing on specificity and sensitivity. For more information, see the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

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American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1037/0000165-000