Writing Controversial Topics

Mindy Lawrence

Controversial topics abound these days covering religion, race, politics, social issues, and gender/sexual issues. As writers, we deal with these spiny topics, trying to be as neutral as possible but still getting the point across. There are ways to succeed in writing about hot-button issues and the controversial successfully. Here are some pointers.

·         Write with utmost care:

·         Research your topic well from ALL angles.

·         Don’t belittle the “other side.”

·         Stay away from vehement words so often seen on Facebook or Twitter.

·         Write FACTS, not half-truths or propaganda. Do your research.

·         Write to pass on information helpful to ALL of your readers.

·         Check your writing for clich├ęs, prejudicial comments, and other no-nos.

·         If you are making a specific point, check out all of the info and research you’ve done on the topic to make SURE you are accurate.

·         Check YOURSELF to see if you can write honestly about the topic.

Although this is mainly for nonfiction writers, it doesn’t hurt ALL writers to consider these suggestions.

Ruth Seaber, Department Chair & Associate Professor of English at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri, gives these suggestions for writers dealing with controversial topics:

·         I would differentiate “Truth” from facts. Because of the very nature of a controversial subject, “Truth” is a matter of interpretation.

·         (Writers should) Stay away from subjects they can’t write objectively about. They’ll know these subjects when they encounter intense emotional reactions when researching the opposing view.

·         First and foremost ask a question and research the answer. Don’t look for or cherry pick arguments or “evidence” to support one’s pre-existing opinion. That is, don’t have an opinion going in—find out the facts first. At the very least, check to be sure the facts you’ve recited since 1975 are still verifiable. New evidence does come about.

·         I advise writers to know the lenses through which they view the world, which helps them spot their own biases.

·         Distinguish between controversial and hot button issues. A controversial topic is any topic about which people disagree, upon which two cases can be made. A hot button issue is an extremely controversial or divisive issue. Controversial —we need a new shopping center in XYZ township. Hot button —we need a homeless shelter in a residential neighborhood in Clayton, Missouri.

Caroline Giammanco, author of Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit, Inside the Death Fences, and Into the Night, is no stranger to controversial writing. She’s written about the Missouri prison system with great skill. She says:

“Just be honest and don’t fabricate details just to make it sound more exciting. If it’s controversial, it will be exciting enough.”


Writing about Controversial Topics, Michael Gallant



Writing Controversial Topics, Scott Kuttner



How to Write about Controversial Subjects, Iain Broome



Grasping Both Sides: The Challenge, T. Statman



Mindy Lawrence is a writer, ghost blogger, and artist based in Farmington, Missouri. She worked for the State of Missouri for over 24 years and moved to Farmington in 2020. She proofed the Sharing with Writers newsletter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson and wrote “An Itty-Bitty Column on Writing” there for ten years. She has been published in Writers Digest magazine and interviewed by NPR’s All Things Considered.




Karen Cioffi said...

Mindy, great tips on how to handle controversial or delicate topics. There seems to be a lot of them around nowadays! It's all about being subtle.

Terry Whalin said...


What great insights for every writer about how to write on controversial topics. In general I steer away from writing about controversy--even though I know it sells. It's my personal choice with my writing but you have terrific advice for those who want to wade into it.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Mindy, I like how you include links to related articles in all your columns!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

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