How to Write the Tough Stuff

By: Michelle Gunnin

I have a tendency to write about difficult subjects. I think because I have journaled my whole life, and have had some pretty tough moments of my own. I am drawn to express in words when bad things happen. Traumatic world events such as earthquakes, riots, terrorist attacks, school shootings – all of these things capture me because they break my heart. Then my head, heart, and hands conspire together to communicate.  My feelings about these tragedies beg to be released from inside of me, onto the page. It is not unlike when I write about an event in my own life in that it brings forth a discharge of pent-up angst, and it helps my mind to clear of the incomprehensible parts of the human experience.  I do not make a conscious decision when I hear a news report, “I’m going to write about this.” It is a connection to the people that spills out, more so than a report of events. Sometimes it is a prayer, others it is a simple note of encouragement to those affected, or it can be a story inspired by the real events. There are any number of ways these type situations find an outlet from my pen.

As writers, we find ourselves writing “around” these types of events.  Whether it is a realistic fictional story in a post 9-11 world or a piece about the infrastructure of foreign countries, the hard stuff seems to find its way to us, in one way or another.  If we steer clear of it, our writing feels a bit counterfeit, as if we are not living in the real world.  Our readers detect that we are missing parts of topics because we are afraid to address them. At the same time, we don’t want to dwell on them for fear of diverting from our topic of choice.  Here are a few things to think about when you are writing about the tough stuff.

  • Consider the tenderness of the topic. Right after 9-11 our country was raw with an open wound.  We have to contemplate the difference between helpful words and harmful ones. Writing about the Holocaust will always require reflection on how the words will affect the survivor’s families because there is a tenderness that hurts when it is touched.  Probing a wound is best done with a gentle touch.
  • Consider the community affected. The shootings in Orlando happened to a community of folks who have been marginalized for a very long time. The church shooting in Charleston was race related.  When writing about these types of events some writers are insensitive to the background of the people affected.  The kind of piece doesn’t matter, if you are writing regionally, it is best to know the region and the people who live there.
  • Consider the backstory. There is always a backstory.  In school shootings, the backstories come in a flood.  Every child victim has their story told. Usually, the shooter also has their story told. It is tempting to jump to conclusions and not fact check, but if the information you write isn’t accurate, your readers will know, and you will lose your credibility. Considering all sides of a story, even if it is just research for an unrelated article, is preferred because if you are one sided, your reader will cry “Bias!”
  • Consider the complexity. Every situation in the modern world we live in is complex. If things were simple, there wouldn’t be an issue at all.  Getting emergency supplies to hurricane or earthquake victims seems like it should be an easy task, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  If your story doesn’t take into account the complexity of a situation, it rings untrue in the ears of your readers.  Your characters need to deal with realistic problems that would be true in your chosen setting.  Often there are many layers of intricacy in traumatic events…even ones made up for fiction.
  • Consider the feelings. Not every person will be sad after a flood.  Not every person will have to deal with grief.  Some will be angry.  Others will be hopeful.  If you are writing to an audience in an area that has experienced some type of trauma, you have to keep the feelings in mind.  What is true for one person is not true for another, so do not make assumptions, or draw conclusions.  Sweeping generalizations are not helpful whether you are writing fact or fiction.
  • Consider your connection. You may not have ever experienced a wildfire, but you might know a firefighter who has.  Your story or article will use this connection consciously or subconsciously.  You might think to interview your friend, or you might write out of what you know from your relationship with him.  Either way, your writing is affected and will be different from someone who knows no one with that type of experience.  This can be an advantage if you write from a positive connection, but also a disadvantage if you are unaware that you are writing from a place in which you have a strong negative connection.
  • Consider the impact. Your writing has an impact.  When you are writing a piece that has to do with a disturbing event, consider what impact it might have on the situation.  A letter to the editor in a newspaper could spark a backlash, or a drum up a host of support for the community.  The choice of words you use is the difference. The tone of your piece is critical.  If you decide what kind of impact you want to have BEFORE you write, it will be more likely to transpire the way you intended.
  • Consider your feelings. Writers are passionate people.  Our feelings on an issue cannot help but come out in our words.  That is not a bad thing.  In fact, it is what makes our writing resonate with our readers. Sometimes, however, our feelings can get the better of us and taint our words.  Did you ever write a letter while you were mad?  I did.  Thank goodness that I grew up in the era of snail mail. Otherwise, I would have hit the send button and ruined some relationships, when all I needed was a little time to cool off!  If you have strong feelings about an event, you might consider writing and setting it aside for a bit. Then reread it to see if your ideas are conveyed the way you intended. It does no good to write your feelings if no one knows what it is you are trying to communicate.
  • Consider getting feedback. When all else fails, get a trusted friend to read it and tell you honestly how your words about an event affect them. Usually, this one tip can avoid the pitfalls and potential landmines of writing about difficult topics. If you do this before you submit for publication, it will save you a world of trouble.

Writing the tough stuff is, well, tough.  However, it doesn’t have to be if you just consider a few simple things. Our readers trust us to be honest and not shy away from hard things, so we have to learn how to write the tough stuff.






  1. Hi, Michelle. This is such excellent advice. I’ve written about tough stuff for more than twenty-five years. Addiction, where families are torn apart, divorces, losses and death are not fluffy nor light topics, but I know from the numbers of views and comments at FromAddict2Advocate that how I word things takes feelings into account without being judgmental or harsh.

    From your post, “If we steer clear of it, our writing feels a bit counterfeit, as if we are not living in the real world. Our readers detect that we are missing parts of topics because we are afraid to address them.”

    I don’t think any of my posts shy away from how damaging my addiction was to my family and close friends – many of whom had to walk away from me before I got into recovery. Addressing addiction isn’t easy, but I also try to provide directions or suggestions that have worked for me for almost 28 years. I also realize and state that not all of my suggestions will work for everyone, so include other writers to give balanced and objective perspectives on the subject of recovery from addictions.

    Excellent points. So glad this is here.

    • Thanks Marilyn! Light and easy might sell in our world, but I feel that readers really want the harder stuff of life. I think your realistic posts that do not shy away from the hard topic of addiction probably meet people in their tough places. I am sure they are grateful for your words and your heart. 🙂

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