IWSG 88: It’s How You Say It


This post was written for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group where we share our encouragement or insecurities on the first Wednesday of the month, to join the group or find out more click here.



Jemima Pitt | J Lenni Dorner | Cathrina ConstantineRonel Janse van Vuuren | Mary Aalgaard


In your writing, where do you draw the line, with either topics or language?

Personally, I draw the line at disrespecting any living thing.

Professionally, if there is such a thing for me, I draw the line at what my readers find offensive and where my truth, passion, or theme falls. Hopefully, it lands somewhere between the two.


,,,can be a huge deal. Think middle grader, or young adult. I want my characters to be authentic and real to my readers. But gatekeepers and publishers are on the lookout for the inappropriate, and I don’t blame them for being careful.

I know that if the language I use is iffy, then I’d better have a good reason for it because they are not about forgiveness in the name of art. Our children are precious and grow up way too fast as it is.

Controversial topics,

…however, are for any age group.

 “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”–Winston Churchill

This train of thought is worth considering when writing anything.

The thing is that kids learn by example, and writing stories that get the kids thinking about their lives and how they want to live them is a good thing IMO.


Topics are controversial because we all have opinions, and we all have a right to a point of view. What makes some of us different from others is the level of respect we offer when we share.

 “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.”–Voltaire

Make a stand if it’s important to you, but be warned there could be blowback.

Some publishers love hot topics, and if you’re submitting, consider the submission pages of your favorite publishers to discover where they stand.

My Question to You

It takes all kinds to make up the world we live in. Do you have any tips on how to approach a controversial subject in fiction?

Gleaned from:

61 responses to “IWSG 88: It’s How You Say It

  1. Charity Bradford

    Well said! I think there are so many ways we can share our thoughts and feelings on controversial topics in our writing without getting preachy. People are more likely to “hear” it, even if it doesn’t change their mind, when it isn’t presented as ABSOLUTE TRUTH. So, I guess I’m saying as long as we remember that everyone has the right to their own opinion and respect that it could be different than ours, we won’t run into too many walls.

  2. If you’re going to write controversy, have a purpose for it, not just for shock value.

  3. Sorry, I don’t have tips to offer except to read other books and see how authors deal with hard topics. I do agree that you have to set certain boundaries when writing for MG and YA.

  4. To stay authentic you have to use language appropriate for the situation and the characters portrayed. In the mini-series, MIDNIGHT MASS, divergent religious beliefs were portrayed never saying any of them were obviously wrong or right. Each character rang true to human nature, and that is all we can hope to accomplish with our prose. Have a wonderful day,

  5. Ronel Janse van Vuuren

    Love the quotes! I like Roland’s advice above about staying authentic.

    Ronel visiting for IWSG day as co-host The IWSG Goodreads Book Club

  6. Sometime hard/controversial topics will come up in your writing depending on what your genre is. How the characters handle it makes or breaks how it’s received. Humans are flawed which means our characters will also be flawed, but still the topics can and should be handled with care even if you’re expecting people to disagree with the character’s actions.

  7. The only way I know to approach a controversial subject in my writing is to do it honestly. There’s nothing I like better than to enter a story with a controversial theme and leave it understanding more about that theme.

  8. Hi,
    I agree with Lee because I was going to say something similar. To approach a controversial l topic, you have to write one Just maybe when you get ready to research it you will gain a better understanding of the topic Have I ever done it. Yes, my second short story is very controversial. I did a lot a research, researching the intimacy and reasons behind the sex scene.
    All the best.

    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  9. Great post. I love those quotes as well.
    Target audience is important to consider when we’re writing. I don’t know a single kindergarten teacher who hasn’t been told to “F*** Off” by a student. Kids have heard and often use the language – but no one wants it in a chapter book! 😉

  10. I haven’t really found any topic off-limit, but approaching it correctly is definitely a must. I love how thoughtful you are about it.

  11. I really liked your answer to this month’s question and how you covered so many aspects of the same.

  12. Adrienne Reiter

    I think trauma and controversial situations are appropriate topics when central to the plot. My hard line is to avoid the use of euphemism to avoid hard truths. It implies shame and disgust. Like you said, keep it authentic. Happy IWSG day!

  13. This is really interesting, because the comments here really do portray a diversity of how individuals view things. I thought Midnight Mass was a predictable bash of Christians/Catholics, with its not-too-subtle bloodsucking theme. In my view, it was pretty clear who the “bad” guys were from the beginning. So this is just one example of why it is so difficult to approach controversy. 😆

    • Controversy was a side dish at my family dinners. Not that I was listened to then. I understand respect because I know how it feels to not get any.

      I haven’t watched Midnight Mass, but I think I will, just to find out where I stand on the whole thing.

  14. Hi Anna,

    I agree that topics and language should be screend for MG, but YA is another matter. Teens today are facing so much in their lives, Bullying, sex, violence, drugs, alcohol, abuse, etc. is often at play. When writing in this genre, teens need to relate to the characters who are experienceing similar aspects in their lives. If it is candy-coated, teen readers will see right through it and roll their eyes.

  15. I like your personal ‘line in the sand’. But I’m not so sure about the professional aspect of it, because every reader is different. What someone finds totally acceptable and even fascinating, another might find repulsive or offensive. I experienced such a phenomenon with my own stories. I discovered you can’t please them all. I’m not even trying anymore. I follow my personal taboos. And if a reader doesn’t like what or how I write, he doesn’t have to read it.

  16. I love every point you just made. I think it takes and expert to write controversial topics. Lots of research, interviewing and living the experience on some level 🙂

  17. It’s tricky if you’re writing for young readers. As a former teacher, I’m grateful to all kidlit and YA authors who tackle timely, controversial topics in their stories. We often give young readers too little credit. Better to prepare them for the world they live in rather than present only a soft-focused, sugar-coated version of what they’ll soon be facing.

    • Without the education, they’re unequipped to dive into their future. I keep thinking of the girl that was overprotected all her life and how she became the sad life of the party once she broke free. :-/

  18. Great quotes. Disrespect is a great way to describe what you don’t write. I guess that’s true for me, too. That encompasses so much.

  19. Some great comments on this post! I always try to approach with empathy and a heart to understand what someone (even a fictional someone I’m making up) is going through.

  20. I adore both of the quotes you included!

  21. I liked your answer. Very well thought out and said.
    I do not approach or enter go—I write what I write and want to write, so if it makes the story better and fits the story and makes a better book I do the best I can from the point of human emotion and heart—so I don’t knowingly at any time touch controversial in a personal view. I write story for storytelling not the subject matter. Respect, as you stated, is the answer I like best.

  22. I don’t really have any tips to offer. I usually just let the story do its thing initially then go from there. 🙂

  23. I actually inserted a bad word in my latest ms. It wasn’t until I began edits that I noticed it. I was shocked. Yet, as I paused to reflect on how it came about, it occurred to me that the word fits the character at that moment in the story. It might also be that raising 5 boys to manhood and being married to this particular man, (LOL subtle, eh?) I responded to the scene unconsciously. That sounds like an excuse to me. LOL.

  24. Those are some awesome quotes! I have a controversial lifestyle and I write non-fiction and memoir. Deducted from that, my topics – and my voice (because of who I am) – can be controversial. Most readers love it, but the ones who don’t seem to become “enemies,” voicing their displeasure with one-star reviews. When you are honest and straightforward, you need except adversities.

  25. I’d say if you’re going to write something controversial then make sure you have your reasons why figured out and be prepared to stand behind those reasons.

  26. There’s a lot of great comments and thoughts here. I second Meka’s comment. I believe that honesty, respect, care, and how the characters respond to any difficult topics is what matters. How do they grow and heal from it? What do they learn? Important questions.

  27. Wow, I love those quotes, Anna! Inspiring stuff. It’s interesting to see how a lot of the IWSG responders have echoed similar sentiments!

  28. Love those quotes (you know I’m a sucker for a good quote).
    I agree with spunkonastick. Writing controversial must have a purpose, shouldn’t be for shock value.

  29. I write as I speak, but add trigger warnings when they’re called for. The quotes are spot-on.

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