If you want to get a lot of angry comments in a short period of time, there’s no faster way to do so than by writing about a controversial subject.
As a teenager, I held (and still hold) strong opinions about controversial political, religious, and ethical topics. And so I wanted to write about them—with the boldness I believed was appropriate when standing up for truth.
Unsurprisingly, this has gotten me in trouble. I started my fair share of Facebook flame wars back in the day. There were discussions when I’ve had to apologize for what I said. And there are other times that my remarks on controversial subjects have driven people away rather than drawing them towards my position.
A few years ago, I had to work through this in an article I wrote for Story Embers. I was tackling the topic of cleanness in Christian fiction and taking the controversial position that it’s sometimes fine to write stories that aren’t “PG”.
After writing the article, I presented it to the editorial staff and the consensus was clear: while they agreed with much of what I said, I was communicating my points in a way they thought would turn off readers.
The article had a problem. I didn’t yet understand how to write about controversial subjects. And as I looked back at it with the help of the editorial staff, I began to see why exactly my article was turning people off and what I needed to do to persuade people about this subject instead of driving them away.
Here are the four changes I made to communicate my point more clearly and avoid offending readers (which you can also use to overcome this challenge when you face it in your own writing).
1. Begin the Article by Building Empathy
One of the things I had to do when I first sat down and started working on revisions was to figure out my focus: do I want to try and persuade readers, or do I want to preach to the choir and rally together people who already agree with me?
These are two different things–and a lot of people who write today are really only concerned with doing the latter. Just scroll through the pages of left-wing or right-wing sites to see what this looks like.
A lot of websites are built on “outrage culture” which use brash statements to rally up one side and tear down the other side. It gets a lot of click-throughs and a lot of praise from the side you’re cheering for.
But it doesn’t love your neighbor who’s on the other side.
As I took a look at the original draft of the article, even though my article wasn’t as brash and offensive as it could have been, I realized that I was writing it as a bold opinion piece rather an as a persuasive piece.
And so I had to step back and consider this question for myself: who am I trying to reach? Am I trying to be a cheerleader for my side or reach out to the other side?
Once I realized that my goal was to persuade, that meant changing my approach.
There’s an old adage that says that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That applies here. If you’re truly interested in loving your neighbor on the other side of the controversial issue, you not only need to write your article from this motive of love, but you also need to communicate that to your reader.
In the first draft of my post, I started it with a blunt critique of the opposing side. Our editorial staff worried this would turn off the people that held this position. And they were right. After all, put yourselves in an audience’s shoes.
If the first paragraphs you read are hostile to your position, how likely are you to keep reading and give them a fair hearing?
I had a problem. And so I changed my focus and rewrote my introduction. Instead of using the introduction to critique the other position, I used it to try and build empathy with my readers.
For readers who believe all fiction should be clean, there’s certain questions they likely wrestle with: “What does it mean for fiction to be clean?”, “How can we avoid tempting readers?”, etc. These are not bad questions.
The motives of writers wanting this type of fiction are good and I needed to let them know that. As a result, I discussed these questions in my introduction and emphasized the true value of clean fiction more.
This way, I began by building off of a common ground I shared with those of differing views and sought to build empathy with those readers.
When you sit down to write about a controversial subject, the first thing you need to do is to do a heart-check. Are you writing this out of a desire to bash the other side or out of a desire to lovingly persuade your neighbor?
Once you’ve committed yourself to speaking the truth in love, while this needs to extend to your whole writing, I believe this is most important in the introduction.
First impressions are important. So use the beginning of your article to build empathy with readers who disagree with you.
2. Build to Your “Big Guns,” Don’t Start with Them
Sometimes when people talk about speaking the truth in love, they don’t really mean to speak the truth lovingly, but in practice they mean using love to water down the truth to be less offensive. Which–when you think about it–is neither a true nor loving approach.
Properly understood, truth and love go hand-in-hand. You shouldn’t feel the need to water down your beliefs in order to persuade people. But you do need to think about how to persuade people to your beliefs lovingly.
Once you’ve begun your post by building empathy with your reader, the next step I recommend taking is to build slowly to your “big guns” instead of jumping right to them on the outset.
Shock-and-awe tactics are effective in war when you’re trying to destroy a position, but they’re not so effective when you’re trying to persuade others to a position.
In my original article, I included a section in my introduction where I described several of the places where Scriptures don’t live up to the “PG” standards of Christian fiction and asked why Christians are stricter on these qualities than the Bible is.
My argument wasn’t wrong. But my audience probably wasn’t ready for it right then.
As a result, in addition to rewriting the introduction, I moved my examples there to about halfway through the post. Instead of starting off with that point, I instead built empathy in the introduction, spent a section of my article grappling with different definitions of cleanness and trying to define terms, and only then brought out my biggest arguments.
By building toward these slowly instead of starting off with them, I was able to more gently persuade my audience to my beliefs instead of immediately pressuring my audience with them.
And then by following up my biggest arguments with a section where I mentioned I experience the same discomfort they may feel about this, I sought to again communicate empathy.
When you’re writing about a controversial subject, look for ways that you can communicate the truth in the context of love by building to your strongest arguments and maintaining clear empathy with your audience.
While this doesn’t always feel as powerful as shock-and-awe tactics, it’s more effective in the long run for persuading others.
3. Remove Unnecessary Obstacles
When I was learning how to practice apologetics in high school, my pastor said something that stuck out to me: “The Gospel is offensive enough on its own. Don’t make it more offensive than it needs to be in how you present it.”
His point was that we don’t want to add unnecessary obstacles to the unbelievers’ path. You may not be able to completely avoid offending readers with your article.
But there are ways you can offend readers more than necessary, and you need to avoid doing so whenever possible. The challenge is in discovering what that looks like.
When I took a look at my original article again, I realized that I was putting unnecessary obstacles in my readers’ paths. Sometimes it was because I was overstating my claims, or making other controversial claims that wasn’t necessary to my case.
In one example, I used some overly-vivid language to describe certain biblical events. But when I was describing it in that way, I was driving away readers when I didn’t need to do so to make my point. As a result, I toned the wording down to be less vivid.
A large part of my rewriting involved “toning the essay down”–but not by toning down my beliefs. Instead, I toned down the way I argued for those beliefs and removed unnecessary side trails I went on to clarify my focus.
By removing unnecessary obstacles from my reader’s path, I believe I was able to craft the article to be more persuasive while still clearly stating my beliefs. It can be hard to know when your beliefs will inherently offend readers and when you’re offending them more than necessary with your presentation.
But the more focused you can be in your writing and the less obstacles you can put in readers’ paths, the better your argument will be.
4. Consider Audience Objections and Preempt Them
If you want to persuade others to a controversial position you hold, you need to understand why they disagree with you first. If you don’t understand why they believe what they believe, you won’t persuade them effectively.
When you address these objections, however, you have a better chance of honing in on why they should reconsider their disagreement and accept your position. I was already partially doing this in the first draft of my article, but after getting some great feedback from my team, I sought to take this to the next level during my revisions.
Before writing my article, I spent some time thinking through why some people believed clean fiction was a moral imperative and came up with a list: worries that we can’t depict certain actions and remain virtuous, concerns about God’s command in Philippians 4, and uncertainties about how to avoid violating consciences.
Some of these possible objections came from my team during revisions. Once I felt like I better understood why my audience would disagree, I then made sure to address each of these concerns in my actual article.
This route establishes two things. First: it shows the audience that I understand where they’re coming from. I think that there are valid reasons why folks may disagree with me, and I don’t want my audience to think that I’m writing from a position of ignorance.
Your audience needs to know that you understand them if you want them to listen to you. This may require you doing some research so that you do understand their objections.
Second: this tactic helped me to clarify what I did believe and what I didn’t believe. By addressing possible objections and explaining my response, I was able to better clarify what I did and didn’t believe to avoid miscommunication.
How to Write About Controversial Subjects: Speaking the Truth in Love
After listening to my team, I took these four tactics to make my article less offensive than it was originally. The result? While the original article probably would have provoked a number of angry responses, the revised and published article largely did not.
Some commenters disagreed with my points, but there was only one individual who was offended by what I said, and the overwhelming response to my article was positive. And the case of the offended individual was probably a situation I could have remedied with a couple further clarifications.
Speaking the truth in love means caring about your neighbor on the other side of the fence more than you care about your argument. It means going against the grain of an outrage-driven society to truly seek to persuade others. It often requires getting multiple pairs of eyes on your article before publishing it.
After all, if I didn’t have a team to work with, I wouldn’t have noticed all the flaws I did in my original piece. In other words: it takes work. It’s easy to write a brash opinion piece. It’s harder to write a loving persuasive piece.
And yet when Christ came down to earth, he didn’t take the easy route. While he harshly condemned the hypocritical leaders, he didn’t speak harshly to the general populace. Instead, he spoke out of concern and with love. He didn’t break the bruised reads or quench the smoldering wicks.
When you truly speak truth to your readers in the context of love, that’s when you have the best chance of God working through you to move hearts and lives.