How to Deal with Tough Subjects in Writing

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, whether you’re a journalist or a poet, if you’re a writer you’re bound to encounter a tough topic. Writers are often moved to depict situations that can test the limits of our empathy, our tact, and our writing abilities.

Your face when you realize you're in way over your head with this piece.
Your face when you realize you’re in way over your head with this piece.

For example, what happens when you set out to write a story about a sexual assault? The survivor of the attack may not feel comfortable revealing their name, or the triggering details of their trauma, or even the fact that they were violated at all.

And that’s their right. Any further pressure on them to reveal details they want to remain private only further violates the survivor. We, as writers, should attempt to adhere to the same ethical guidelines as journalists. (The same respect can apply to a survivor of a shooting, or someone who attempted suicide. The list, sadly, could go on and on.)

But, in our hypothetical scenario, even if you gain access to the survivor—in a limited way, or not—the question remains: How do I handle their story with care and sensitivity, while still depicting the horrible reality of what happened?*

  • Be Accurate

Whether you’re writing fiction based on a sensitive experience or a factual news article, you owe it to your subjects/characters and readers to get it right. (My former Intro to Journalism professor’s mantra of “Get it right, don’t assume, no clichés” still lingers in my mind whenever I sit down to write, even though I’m no journalist.)

What happened, exactly? Especially if you are writing about an actual event, you’d better fact check your work to death. Can you imagine the subject of an article about how they survived a shooting at their high school reading it, and being struck by the fact that you got the school’s name wrong? Or that you miscalculated the amount of students and teachers injured or killed? Your subject wouldn’t exactly trust you as a writer after such a grievous error.

The old “Who, When, What, Where, and Why” are not always all required for a story, depending on its specifications, but if you include them then you had better get them all right.

  • Be Compassionate

This can often be the hardest—how can you empathize with your subject, but still manage to stay calm enough to write? It can be tough, but the best advice I can give is to listen. Do your homework, ask smart questions, and be willing to listen to the person who had the experience you are trying to depict/portray/explain. How did they feel at the time? Did those feelings change? What background information can you give to paint a full picture of the traumatic event, including all the messy human emotions and heartwrenching details. That’s not to say you should sensationalize unnecessarily—do your best to tell their whole story, but with honesty.

  • Be Nuanced

There’s nothing more frustrating than reading about an experience and only seeing a flat, simplified version of reality (or, in fiction, a mere shadow of a representation). In a recent Writing Excuses podcast, the hosts talk about disability in narrative with a woman named Charlie Harmon who has gradually been going blind for most of her life.

While disability is not necessarily a traumatic experience, Harmon notes how many writers fail to capture the nuances of disability. Writers who write blind characters can often just assume they know what being blind feels like, instead of talking to people who are blind and gleaning valuable details. Harmon, for example, slides her cane across the ground instead of tapping it, which is a common depiction of blind people walking with canes in movies.

Including such nuances can help all writers portray tough subjects in a way that readers will notice.

A powerful example of a piece by a writer who handled a sensitive topic with both brutal honesty and remarkable grace, helping his subject reclaim her dignity, is Eli Sanders’s “The Bravest Woman in Seattle”  [HUGE trigger warning for sexual assault, despite the careful handling of the story.]

*Disclaimer: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a pretty sheltered college student who has (thankfully) not experienced many horrible things. These are merely my suggestions for dealing with a difficult, often sensitive, topic.

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