Things that Go Bump When We Write – Tough Topics

Life is full of difficult, uncomfortable situations. How we deal with those on a personal basis is one thing… how you deal with tough topics as a writer may be completely different. One thing that doesn’t work is avoidance.

Usually at FWJ we have to caution writers about taking on too much work, but the room clears when sensitive subject posts are passed out. Why?

Fear. No one wants to get their name tagged to a controversial subject because they fear they will lose out on future gigs because of it. No one wants to call the woman with breast cancer and talk about the big “C” because they fear they will come across insensitive or nosey. No one wants to offend.

Debra Stang of Confessions of a Word Concubine (love that title by the way) answered a question I posed from a previous post about this very same topic. She had some great words of advice from her own experience:

Perhaps because I’m a medical social worker and get involved in ethical dramas every day, I seem drawn to sensitive topics; for instance, I recently wrote an article for Suite101 about whether a mental illness could ever be considered terminal. I’ve also written articles about abandoning aggressive care for palliative care and about the efficacy of electro-convulsive therapy as a treatment for depression.

When I write these articles, I take a calm, low-key approach, just as if I’m speaking to a client. I don’t use inflammatory language or insult people who believe differently than I do, I back up my theories with statistics, and I always try to respect and acknowledge opposing viewpoints. My goal in writing sensitive articles is to make people think about hard issues, not to make people feel angry or attacked.

So far, my method has worked. I’ve only gotten “flamed” a couple of times, which is pretty good considering some of the topics I’ve tackled.

Great advice Debra. When writing an article on a touchy subject it pays to take a low key approach, keeping agenda out of the piece. Supportive facts and excellent sources also helps to keep the timid writer from running for the hills. Just like in any other article, don’t put yourself into the piece.

But, don’t lose your compassion either.

I took a tough assignment interviewing women fighting breast cancer to discuss how it had affected their family in order to help other women going through the same thing. I flat out told my editor I was uncomfortable approaching people to talk about it. It turns out, everyone I talked with WANTED to talk about it, wanted to help, wanted other women to learn from their experience. And while several of the women I spoke with eventually lost their battle, I had become a better writer for getting a chance to talk with them. It was one of those pieces that didn’t need my voice, it only needed the voice of the interviewees. It evolved into a Q&A instead of a feature article and I learned how to let the piece evolve instead of sticking to the script I set for it.

As far as losing future assignments – bah. As long as your article is professional, has supporting facts and sources to back it up and doesn’t promote an agenda, you have no worries. Remember you plot your path – that’s why you became a writer in the first place. An experienced editor knows that writers tackle a variety of subjects and they are interested only in the quality of your work and your work ethic.

Got any tips for tackling a tough topic? Share with the FWJ community below!


2 responses
  1. Lauren Avatar

    That’s absolutely true – a good editor/client is looking for quality writing and work ethic. In fact, I feel like tackling a tough topic can be really beneficial for a writer’s career. It says a lot about a writer’s professionalism not only for tackling a difficult subject, but also their ability to adapt to topic/deadline/issue/etc. Especially for writer’s who don’t specialize, it can really be a selling point that their not afraid to dive in to a subject they’re not fully comfortable with, be it for personal or professional reasons.

  2. Allan Douglas Avatar

    Very true, we must be able to approach and present delicate topics dispassionately, even if we are passionate about them or an “article” turns into a “rant”. Yet, a good article about a delicate subject must have compassion or it comes across as cold and clinical. A difficult wire to walk!

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