Whether it’s politics or religion, economic issues or social ones, writing about controversial topics can be challenging — but often very important — work. These tips can help you stay focused and persuasive.
Controversial or inflammatory issues can find their way into your writing whether you’re crafting a newspaper op-ed, historical novel, or poignant memoir. Regardless of the context, there are likely as many ways to approach writing about controversial topics as there are opinions about them. Here are a few principles that have helped me address fraught topics in ways that feel honest and effective.
Know the goal
If you’re writing about a controversial issue, many readers will likely come to your prose with their own opinions pre-formed. Is your goal to light a match under those who already see eye-to-eye with you, inspiring them towards a certain action? Are you trying to convince those with differing opinions to view things from your perspective? Are you trying to influence those who have yet to consider the issue at hand? Is your goal to educate your readers to raise awareness or set a rich and nuanced backdrop for some major narrative action?
It’s important that you’re thoroughly aware of your goal when you begin so you can craft your language and logic to achieve it as powerfully and elegantly as possible.
Stick to the truth
I believe in laying a foundation of solid, proven facts when it comes to writing about potentially inflammatory topics. In terms of reaching your audience, maintaining credibility, and enhancing your reputation as a writer, the more factually based your argument is, the more it will stand up to scrutiny. One of my key goals in writing about controversial topics is to have readers respect my writing, opinions, and thought process, even if they don’t ultimately agree with my conclusions.
Stay brutally focused
Especially on topics that spark passionate disagreement — and ones that inspire passion in you as a writer — it can be easy to let raw emotions drive you, rather than relying on your instincts as a writer and your experience as a storyteller. Don’t do this. One pitfall that overly emotional writers fall into is trying to cram too many opinions, nuances, feelings, and details into a single text. Instead, as per the above, know what your goal is and stick, ruthlessly, to drafting text that accomplishes that goal. If you come up with juicy, ancillary arguments, or beautifully worded points that feel even slightly distracting or tangential, save them for another work.
When you feel strongly about a subject, it can be easy to default to overblown and extreme language. Doing so can lead you to inadvertently exaggerate and distort the points you’re trying to make. It can also turn readers off, as nobody likes feeling like they’re being screamed at through the page. Plus, the vibe that a writer is “trying too hard” can make readers lose interest quickly.
Think critically each time you use words like “tragic,” “catastrophic,” and “hero.” Sometimes such words are the perfect choice, but often they can and should be replaced with something less grandiose. As a matter of process, I recommend going through any text that addresses hot-button issues and eliminating unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, anything that feels extreme, overly emotional, or irrational. The less you clutter your work with nonessential vitriol, the more powerful it will ultimately be.
If you’re writing something with a political bent, for example, try reading a dozen articles or other short works on similar topics before you dive in. Pay attention to the recurring phrases you see other writers using and come up with different words as you craft your own work. This may make your initial writing process more difficult, but it will ultimately yield a finished product that sounds more like you and less like pre-formed propaganda.
Let readers draw their own conclusions
It’s easy to write “this policy/politician/tradition/social undercurrent is amazing/terrible!” What’s more challenging, but often far more effective, is to clearly present evidence, scenes, narratives, and quotes that support your own strong opinions, creating a pathway through which readers can come to the same understanding that you possess — without anybody feeling pummeled by your point of view.
Get outside perspectives
You never know how different readers will interpret your words, especially when you’re writing on topics that inspire strong and stratified emotions. Show your work-in-progress to several trusted readers and keep their reactions in mind as you push your piece to completion.
Speak from the heart
While a degree of distance and sobriety can go a long way when you’re writing on difficult subjects, never neuter your text or eliminate your voice. It can be a fine line between writing something overly emotional and infusing an appropriate amount of personal passion into your words. To find that balance, I recommend a simple exercise — think about what single nugget of any issue at hand you care about the most, so much so that, if you could convince the entire world of that single, tiny point, you would consider it a miracle. Keep that point in mind as you choose every word, and chances are you’ll find a balance well struck.
Do you have any strategies for writing effectively on controversial topics? Tell us in the comments below.
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