Menu

Talking Taboo: Writing About Sensitive Topics

Blogs aren’t blogs without opinions — but putting yours out there can be scary. With a few basic guidelines, you can dive into the most divisive topics with confidence.

Over in the Commons for Writing 201, we’ve been working on finding our angles as writers. I’ve found myself responding to the same question from several bloggers: “I want to write about X, but I don’t want to seem too opinionated. What should I do?”

Hanging your opinion out on a global laundry line can be scary, especially when you’re writing about potentially contentious topics. We often tiptoe around those stalwarts of family dinner table arguments, politics and religion, but any issue on which two reasonable bloggers can differ can be divisive — and therefore scary — to tackle publicly. Human sexuality. Parenting decisions. Food choices. Who should win The Bachelor.

Today, let’s look at some dos and don’ts for writing about sensitive topics in ways that are both constructive and true to you.

First, a deep breath.

Before we delve into specifics, a pause and a deep breath for perspective…

  1. Blogs thrive on opinions. Without an opinion, a blog post is like an encyclopedia article, or maybe a set of assembly instructions for an end table — utilitarian, but not that interesting. We read blogs because we’re engaged by the people behind those blogs, and that engagement happens when we a blogger’s unique point of view resonates with us.
  2. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Honestly, you can’t please most of the people most of the time, either, and there are days (and topics) when pleasing some of the people some of the time is also a tall order. But you can engage your people most of the time. And who are your people? The ones who are drawn to your voice and perspective.

If you tamp down your opinion, your people can’t find you. You may be tempted to appeal to the widest audience by keeping your blog blandly palatable, but your posts will miss out on the thing that makes blogs so compelling: point of view. Sure, you won’t get hate mail… but you won’t get fan mail, either.

This doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to court controversy, but please don’t be scared of your voice or your opinions. They’re what make you a blogger worth reading.

Dos!

We’re talking about your blog and your opinions — I can’t give you hard-and-fast rules, but there are a few things you can keep in mind when writing about sensitive or controversial issues:

If your opinions did spring fully formed from a magical opinion suitcase, that’s definitely an experience you should post about. Also, you should keep that suitcase somewhere safe.

  • Root your opinions in your experience. Rather than making blanket pronouncements, make your experiences the basis of the discussion. After all, your opinions didn’t spring fully formed from a magical opinion suitcase. Explaining the threads that contribute to your point of view gives us a richer understanding of your position. Acknowledging the ways that your views are products of your experiences also creates a space for readers to share their own stories, whether they agree or disagree.
  • Put your opinions in context. Divisive issues are a great opportunity to draw other bloggers into your post. Sharing what others have already written puts your post into a larger context, which in turn provides more entry points for readers to understand and engage with you. It also builds the connection between your blog and others, strengthening the fabric of the blogging community – good for the individual post, good for your blog, and good for the blogosphere.
  • Give your post a rest before publishing. This is a useful thing to do for any post; it’s easier to see things you could improve or spot typos with fresh eyes. For a post you worry might be controversial, it’s even more important. Taking a break gives the emotion that bubbles up while writing time to settle. After a time-out, you can review your post to ensure that it comes from a place of passionate care, not anger.

Opinionated posts can stimulate lively comment conversations. They may also awaken some trolls — but don’t worry, we’ve got guidance on that, too.

As you develop your voice, you’ll come to a place where you no longer need to keep these tips front-of-mind while writing. In the beginning, when publishing new posts still produces that fizzle of adrenaline, they’ll help you be more comfortable with how you’re framing your opinion.

Don’ts!

Where there are three Dos, there are also three Don’ts:

  • Don’t namecall or denigrate others. Personal attacks may have a few of your die-hard supporters pumping their fists, but that’s it. They don’t sway anyone and they don’t make an argument stronger. Attacks block any conversation with those who don’t agree with you, and may even drive away some of those who do.
  • Don’t share personal details that aren’t your own. Rooting your opinions in experience is a good way to keep a heated discussion grounded, but make sure they’re your experiences. Others’ experiences are not yours to appropriate, unless you’ve been given permission — and even then, you’re not writing from as strong a position (and never know when you might inadvertently misrepresent someone).
  • Don’t namecall or denigrate others. Okay, I lied, that’s only two Don’ts. This one’s important, so it’s here twice. Remember: personal attacks really just make you look bad.

There a lot of subjectivity here and we’re all learning as we go — I’d love to hear from you about a time when you weren’t sure, a time you think you may have gotten it wrong, or the personal guidelines you have for writing about sensitive topics.

Show Comments

104 Comments

Comments are closed.

Close Comments

Comments

  1. Thanks for this – it is really helpful. I actually have a whole section/tab dedicated to what i have called ‘Taboo Topics’ [you should check it out – some incredible stories from friends of mine on topics such as losing a baby, infertility, singleness, being a parent of young children when it’s really tough and more: http://brettfish.wordpress.com/taboo-topics-contents-page%5D

    Will definitely give this post some time and focus and use the thoughts you express going forwards when writing my own stories.

    Thankx again
    love brett fish

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post. The most important thing is writing from your own opinion rooted in your own experiences. There must be passion behind your words , otherwise they will come across generic.

    Erik

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ohh thanks Michelle. I have just got around to writing about the time that my Raymond died. I wanted to be honest about my feelings and what it was like, but I didn’t want to be all gratuitous. I shall bear what you have put in mind, and try not to denigrate him too much.

    ps. Isn’t it a bit racialist to say “denigrate”?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, it means the same as “to blacken” and I always thought that it came from the days when it was thought that black people were untrustworthy. Although there probably aren’t many people who use it in that sense these days, it just seems a bit strange to see it…. But hark at me.. political correctness gone mad!

        Like

  4. A very good article. I wish everyone who posts on the internet could read it. It seems to be a sport to post ire-provoking comments on purpose to see who can raise the biggest fuss and make readers and posters the angriest. This is a game much like graffiti, participated in with little thought for the rights of others by those who seek discord–something certainly not needed in our world, especially at this time. Thanks for this voice of peace and sanity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh isn’t that the truth – for some people it is sport to get out there and just intentionally rumble trouble. I find that frustrating. Personally I’m learning to use the ‘zip it’ response instead of the ‘let them have it’ (i.e. fueling the fire) response!

      Like

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I attended a music festival last weekend and had an awful experience. The festival was the worst I have ever attended and I said so. I do normally try to find the positives in anything I write about but my article was very negative because my experience was negative. I am now the target of personal attacks and accusations of bias on social media. I tried to explain that my opinion of the festival was just that, my opinion. I accept that others attending the same festival may have had a different experience. That however was their reality, not mine. I have simply decided to stop trying to defend my position and to let things die down. My response just keeps the conversation going and provides more grist to the mill.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Giving your opinion gives others a change to learn so go ahead. Just one thing I like to add. Be prepared to be wrong.. Learn from those who also an opinion.
    And being generic is not a bad thing. Keeps the blog open for discussion so we can learn from each other if that is what you want

    There you go, an opinion.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Hi Michelle. I live & work in the Middle East with its own culture amongst the bloggers and the blogosphere. The legal & cultural acceptance differs from country to country of course, from the reasonably tolerant to the downright dangerous for your physical health. I notice that most expat bloggers out here, even in the more tolerant locations, avoid anything that has a religious or political overtone. Understandable, as you can cross a red line without realising. Which can have all sorts of personal consequences. There has possibly never been a time in the entire history of the Middle East when open debate, open doors and open minds were more required. Beyond awful, what’s happening in many places. Bloggers can be a force for good by shining a light. Many local bloggers from the region have and continue to do so. And many others languish in jails. And on the opposite side of the coin are those who use the blogosphere for promoting extremist views. In one recent effort I tried to walk a tightrope of sorts. Got some great reaction both on and off record, but aware that some who might have liked to comment could not do so for reasons already mentioned. So let’s keep shining the light! http://michealdebarra.com/2014/07/24/i-read-the-news-today-oh-boy/

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m all for putting out a strong opinion, but one thing to be aware of is your audience and level of anonymity. For example, my full time job works very closely with state government agencies. My blog has my name on it, and is often read by co-workers & management so it would not be wise for me to publish a post that is critical (fairly or otherwise) of state officials, policies, or other things related to what I get paid to do.

    I’ve dived face first into some controversial topics over the years, but my desire to remain employed and not jeopardize my company’s relationship with the state means I keep some opinions to myself.

    As we hopefully learned from the Duck Dynasty guy, free speech is not always free: http://feitcanwrite.com/2013/12/23/my-2-cents-duck-dynastys-phil-robertson/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you very much:))) Some of what I want to write about is not only opinionated/controversial & about state, federal & political subjects…I live in VA & this state is red-hot politically! But, I have to keep in mind that mine are my experiences/perspectives since I have worked with the populations & the issues that they frequently deal with…. I do not work now, but I have to be conscientious about “how I point the finger” since I am also in that ‘population’ now:))) It will be an experience to write about issues & feel the vibes that come from others that comment….

      Like

  9. A time I wasn’t sure or may have gotten it wrong? Why did I write about the perils of having large breasts? And I couldn’t have kept the fact that I was hospitalized in a mental institution to myself? It seems every time I post a serious subject on my humor blog, I get a bad case of “Writer’s Remorse.” But you know what they say about no risks. I just wish WordPress had a “What Was I Thinking?” Feature in which a big hook comes out (like when a bad performer gets booed offstage!) and swipes back my “sensitive post.” Ps. Pleasure meeting you at BlogHer, Michelle!
    Stephanie

    Liked by 2 people

  10. As an opinion writer for a polling and social research engine (1World Online) I can appreciate those guidelines.

    Opinion writing is sometimes like a transparent boundary that we fail to observe until we have ventured too far off the cliff. The trick to knowing when to lean over further without falling off is what separates those who become successful at it and those who die a sudden death.

    How one presents the opinion is sometimes as important as what they say, and is usually the winning factor. Of course legal boundaries have to be observed, fears conquered, and the skill to know when your voice is appealing to an audience in a unique way.

    Knowing when to be critical, optimistic and pessimistic is an artform all in itself. Knowing how to appeal to the senses of your audience is one that only comes with practice. (Gauge their reactions)

    I believe opinion writing is one of the most complex of all writing forms. Its a mixture of fact, style and personality, as well as opinion. It’s a brave venture to undertake. Anyone can be successful at it as long as they observe a few simple like the ones you have outlined.

    Good post! :)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have to say a big, “Thank you for this” since my blogging will be strictly opinion writing & I frequently find that I have to be careful or else I will fall off the cliff! I am very new to blogging & have been Googling instead. I have found a lot of my pieces out on Google (I am a survivor of a TBI & my legal understanding is small now) & my #s of followers have increased quickly:) Though I have to be certain that I adhere to these rules & not name organizations, etc., I am thinking that this is a HUGE venue for me:))) I hope, anyway:)

      Like

  11. I recently wrote a piece on the expected role of step parents. It incited a lot of debate amongst my circle of friends. I enjoy penning thought-provoking pieces that encourage discussion. It’s really a matter of maintaining respect for the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Oh yes you lied, thats just 2 donts 8-) lol
    so i will add 1 dont to it,
    ”Dont read a post without leaving a comment, thats mean” :)

    But seriously, thats really helpful.
    Especially for a freshman like me… :)
    hope to learn more from the seniors here… Lol :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me that is a big problem. When I look at my stats I have loads of people going through my blog, but not one comment. So I assume people like it enough to read it but think it’s too awesome to comment lol.

      Like

      1. Lol… Like seriously??
        Same here, my stats are doing just great for a 10 days old blog but then i really liked to feel the connection there!
        You know, when people share their own thoughts, it makes me happy… :)

        thanks for sharing your views with me! Nice meeting you.

        Like

      2. At least I’m not alone. I’d rather people commented so that I can understand what I need to improve on.

        It was nice talking to you too, I’ll check your blog out when I get in, mobile app is a bit temperamental

        Like

  13. Great post, agree with just about everything. I think the idea of having an opinion is what people are attracted to, that’s when they become your followers. An opinion doesn’t mean trying to appeal to others’ opinions, it’s really just showing a bit of yourself to people you don’t know and starting a conversation, seeing if they can relate or agree. Sometimes it’s negative opinions that attract the most following, you just never know, so you might as well put yourself out there.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. This is very well written and thought out. Bringing personal experience to our opinions is much like what we bring to reading a book, either we like it or we dont just based on who we are or where we have come from. Keeping that in mind, our readers come to our blogs bringing their own experience and thus accord or discord may occur in response to said opinions! Of course that’s my opinion…great perspective!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I disagree. Root your opinions in facts NOT just your own experience. Our experiences are all colored with our own biases and expectations. It’s nearly impossible for any of us to have a purely objective experience. If you’re writing about beliefs and favorite colors, that’s another thing. In my OPINION the polarization in our culture right now is related to people expressing their subjective opinions as if those opinions had any basis in fact.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Everyone has an opinion about something but that does not mean it makes it a 100% fact. Everyone good or bad should be able to say whatever he/she wants. All these rules and regulations on things that are suppose be free, easy or otherwise is just not right.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I have to say your post was not only good, but encouraging also. I am a first time blogger and your gave me the confidence I needed. I have been writing about my past experiences for awhile and I wanted to share them in the form of a blog. Your “dos & don’ts ” showed me how to express myself & how to not name names. Thanks again

    Like

  18. I’ve been wanting to post about religion for a long time but my family’s views are different than mine so it can be a bit scary. It seems controversy gets the most views though, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I blog anonymously. The advantage is that you can say what you really think without alienating your family and friends (and church). The downside is that you cannot invite your family and friends into the conversation, or tap Facebook for readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I am about to go out on a limb and post a true story that I think is a miracle. I don’t call it that, but let the reader draw their own conclusion. I have stayed away from religious topics, but I have to share this whether people believe it or not.

    Liked by 1 person