Controversial Blog Posts: How to Make them Work

Any topic can stir up controversy. As a health journalist, I can rest assured that someone will passionately disagree with any article’s content. Someone will claim that carrots are wellness-breakers. Another will argue that all meat is toxic. Others are so passionate about a particular lifestyle, they fight for it. Passion can be a great thing, and so can controversy.

Controversial issues run the gamut, from highly debatable topics, like religion, ethics and politics, to the less obvious, like books, fitness and fashion. If varying opinions exist, heated debate can follow. Though journalism and blogging are very different animals, I believe that a little controversy can help or hinder both.

Reasons (and Examples) You Might Cover a Controversial Topic

  • To express your opinion. You feel strongly about traditional versus nontraditional publishing, a new law that was passed or a personal experience and dang it, you’re gonna blog about it!
  • To educate or inspire others. You have expertise in education or medicine and use your blog as a platform to share it with others. (Writer and therapist Louise Behiel does a fantastic job of this on her blog.) Whether intentional or not, the topics you feel compelled to write about could very well be controversial.
  • To engage readers. You have a fair number of readers, but your comments have been sparse. So you dip into a controversy topic to stimulate conversation. This is one of the top ways to gain more comments on your blog, according to social media strategist and blogging pro, David Murton.
  • To attract more readers. You primarily write about books and authors. To attract readers with other interests, you cover an environmental or social issue. Social media sends people passionate about the new issue your way. (I’m personally not a fan of controversy for the sake of boosted numbers, but some writers swear by it.)
  • To have fun and entertain. Not all controversial topics are heavy. Some are downright funny. I always enjoy Piper Bayard’s series, The End is Near (and we deserve it!). Her last segment featured the question, Would you get a vibrating tattoo? (Need I say more???)

Weighing the Risks

Whenever we cover a controversial topic, we run the risk of misunderstandings and hurt feelings—ours and readers.’ (News alert: Writers are sensitive! ;)) Even if we present information respectfully, readers might not follow suit. If you bring up popular myths, you’re up against the mass media microphone. And we never know when we’ll strike a sensitive chord with someone; it’s possible we’ll unintentionally open wounds. And though we might attract new readers in the process, we risk losing others—particularly if we shock readers with a strong opinion piece or present our case poorly. Intense debates can also be exhausting for the writer—especially if we’ve shared strong personal opinions. (If you thrive on debate, that’s another story.)

I can hear some of you thinking, Gee, August. Sounds lovely. Think I’ll stick to songs about socks. But wait! There’s good news. Lots can be done to write about controversial topics while minimizing the risks. I compiled the following suggestions, based on my experience and observations.

Ways to Handle Controversial Topics with Success

1. If you feel so heated you might explode, take a breath before posting. We all have experiences that light a match inside us. Writing about such experiences pronto can make for passionate, but poorly thought out posts. Writing in this state can be therapeutic, but publishing? Not necessarily. Get your thoughts out, yes. But wait to finalize and publish your post until you’ve cooled down. Exercise. Sleep. Drink some water. Re-evalute. If and when you feel confident, publish it.

2. Choose topics you care about. This may seem obvious, but knowing that controversy can boost numbers might tempt us to cover any sticky issue or buzz word. The most popular Google search may be Kim Kardashian’s latest fling, but covering it with little knowledge or concern could come off as disingenuous. Rather than seek out controversy, let it evolve naturally. When I cover controversial topics, it’s because I feel compelled to do so.

3. Do your research. Even if you have boat loads of knowledge on a topic, take some time to read the latest research before posting. I have a hefty background in nutrition, but I don’t craft posts purely with my know-how or experience. Why? Because things have changed since college. Maybe even since yesterday. I also feel I owe it to readers to provide fact-based information and current studies. Opinion pieces are different, of course. In either case, research can strengthen posts.

4. Consider your sources. Using sources that aren’t credible can be worse than no sources at all when it comes to fact-based, informative pieces. An M.D. might seem credible, but if your topic is eye health, you probably don’t want to talk to a cardiologist. Quoting a self-proclaimed expert without verifiable experience and credentials—also risky. Ask yourself why readers should listen to a particular person or study. If you don’t know, keep seeking. For lots more on this topic, check out my earlier post, Truthiness: Raising the Bar in the Blogosphere and Using Research and Evidence, featured by Purdue University.

5. When you share your opinion, make it known. Personal experience can make for fantastic research and post fuel. If you present opinions as fact, however, the follow-up discussion may not be of the healthy, constructive variety. You could also mislead readers or lose their respect. Being forthright and inviting others’ opinions makes way for healthy discussion.

6. Consider your motivation. Are you posting on a topic to inform? Entertain? Simply to vent? (If venting’s your goal, you may want to reconsider—unless that’s part of your blogging identity.) If you want to stimulate conversation without expressing your view, present both sides of a topic. Then end with a question, like, “What do you think?” The motivation behind your blog also matters. Blogs written by romance authors, for example, can generally discuss sex with ease. If you write children’s books, however, sexual themes are risky. Kristen Lamb makes a great case for avoiding certain topics in her post, Deadly Doses—Politics, Religion and Our Author Platform.

7. Respect your readers. No, they may not all agree with you. Some may give you a hard time. But if the post and discussion seem like nasty brawls, no one will have fun. If you handle challenging comments with grace, on the other hand, your readers will respect you in return. And remember, if your aim is stimulating debate, you want various viewpoints. Welcome them. Opposing views are what make controversies controversial. (For an example of respectful discussion, check out the comments on my last post. You’re all awesome! :))

8. Aim for optimism. A little humor can go a long way toward preventing and easing tension. And in general, I don’t think most readers want to be depressed. 😉 If you can, point out the good in a situation or offer solutions to the dilemma you pose. At the very least, end on a positive note. Complaining then ending with an “oh well, like stinks” type conclusion doesn’t provide much takeaway for readers.

9. If you feel you must write it, do. Some of the most controversial books, articles and paintings are also some of the most celebrated and esteemed. If you feel the need to express an opinion or argument, I say do it—in whatever way you feel you must. Think it through, guide your passion with logic and go for it. Freedom of speech exists for good reason.

What are your thoughts on controversial blog topics? Have you covered or shied away from them? Been impressed or frustrated by another’s approach? I love hearing from you!

Leave a comment

50 Comments

  1. You give great advice on handling controversial blog topics and I would suggest that it should also be used when commenting on those blogs. Consider your sources and do your research are big ones. We all have opinions, but that doesn’t make us right. I’ve always believed a healthy debate is good ~ it gives both sides a chance to view a topic from another perspective and that can be a good learning tool. I know I’m not alone in my quest to expand my knowledge base and not just want to argue for the sake of argument. Thanks for another great informational post, August.

    Reply
  2. Marc Schuster

     /  March 27, 2012

    So much good advice here! My favorite piece is to aim for optimism. There’s already so much snark and cynicism in the world that a bit of optimism is a breath of fresh air, especially when a controversial topic is involved.

    Reply
  3. Very good advice. One rule I have is if something upsets me whether it be email, comment, FB post, text or voice mail I take 24 hours before responding. Usually in a different light I can give a better, thought out response. I also apply this rule to reblogging or publishing.
    This simple rule has saved me much heartache.

    Reply
  4. Really great advice, August. I also have the sleep on it rule. And the “would you say this to the commenter or blogger’s face?” rule. Back and forth on the small screen leaves all of the non-verbal cues out of the picture, which means that comments can come across much more harsh than we intended.
    Also, I think it’s a good idea to make sure you are willing to listen to the other side when you blog about something controversial. If your ideas on a topic are non-negotiable, best to keep it off the blog, I think. And of course, beware the haters…

    Reply
    • LOVE your points, Kecia, especially on communicating via computers. That relative anonymity and physical distance can open a whole lots of doors we may not want open. And once something is out there on the web, it’s out there.

      Reply
  5. Great post. I don’t consider myself a journalist – I have too many opinions for that, but I do publish a lot of articles on controversial topics. I think you have to be honest, fair, and up front about the cause, issue, whatever agenda you’re writing about. I can handle the comments when I know to expect them – it’s when I get attacked for an article I considered safe. I don’t like being blindsided like that.

    Reply
  6. I shy away from them–for now anyway. I’m still working on thickening my skin! 🙂

    Reply
  7. I really only tend to blog about things that make me say Ooo (in a good way), but Amber West has tackled controversial blog topics BEAUTIFULLY…. Never once have I read her controversial topics and thought, OUCH — just very well said.

    Reply
    • Amber West was the exact example I wanted to bring up – I squinched my face up before opening her post on Racism yesterday, expecting controversy, but she did a great job. The discussion was completely awesome.

      Reply
      • Totally agree! In fact I reblogged her post today because I thought it should be shared as much as possible. The post and the comments were such a fine example of the productive kind of exchange that can be achieved through blogging. Amber rocks!

  8. Karen McFarland

     /  March 27, 2012

    You did a fantastic job at handling a controversial subject without it getting controversial! I would have to say that I try to stay clear of controversy. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Controversy is best when messy, but my cuffs are never clean, and I cut my own hair!

    Reply
  10. Not only a good article, August, but very timely for me. I’m going to go back now and rethink a VERY controversial blog I’m going to post tomorrow morning in light of what you’ve said.

    Reply
    • David: As you know, I was going to publish something controversial and after a conversation with Kristen (Lamb), I realized I’d be risking too much. I’m not a political writer. It doesn’t fit my platform. I feel fine about not putting it on my blog.

      Not everything has to go on your blog.

      Maybe there’s another venue for it.

      Maybe one where you could even get paid! 😉

      Reply
    • I hope your second look at the post was helpful, David! I imagine we’ve all second guessed our posts and topics at some point. And Renee makes such a great point—sometimes publishing elsewhere is the best way to go. In either case, good luck!

      Reply
  11. Good, balanced advice, August. Especially, on a controversial topic on which there are viable opposite opinions.

    It’s hard not to LOVE Piper and Holmes’ advice. Holmes b/c he has his facts. And, Piper’s humor hits and sarcasm break up potential tension.

    Having said that, I’ve read opposing views posted on their site, which they handled with tact

    Since my blog focuses most on humor, I haven’t yet faced this controversy. But, I’d follow the above advice were it to happen. Sleep on it. Think about it. If it serves no greater purpose than to vent, then it may not be a wise choice.

    I would say your advice also applies to comments. I have experienced (once on my blog) and and once on a friend’s blog a common acquaintance who commented ONLY when she had a diatribe about something in the article to which she took offense. In both instances, she misread the intent of the bloggers statement. We both shrugged it off. We can never know what happened on that day, in her writing career, or in her life that might have hit her outrage button.

    Reply
    • I feel that respectful commenting is important, too, Gloria. I love your thoughts on keeping brash comments on our own blogs with compassion and not taking them personally. Upset people tend to be the loudest… 😉

      Reply
  12. Great advice, August! I’d add that if you know that your topic could stir controversy, anticipate the opposing view. The times I do attempt to speak about something important to me (that I know might stir up some controversy) I try to cover the obvious objections within the post, and be ready for the less obvious in the comments.

    It is also good to know “when to say when” when a commenter takes the opposing side. There is a line between defending your opinion (after all, if it is your blog, you have that right!) and letting things degrade into a pointless brawl. 🙂

    Reply
    • Great thoughts, Amber. Considering all viewpoints can really help us choose our words and points appropriately. And anything to prevent blog-brawl is wise.

      I love that you’ve gotten some praise from other commenters here. I agree! 🙂

      Reply
      • I feel really privileged to have women I admire saying such nice things about that post, so a big thanks to all of you!

  13. Kourtney Heintz

     /  March 27, 2012

    Great suggestions August! I enjoy reading about different topics. Even if I don’t agree with the position the blogger is taking, I can appreciate a well thought out argument. I thinks it’s also important to be respectful when commenters express a differing opinion.

    Reply
  14. This is great advice. It’s fine to speak our opinion, but we need to weigh the pros and cons before putting it all there in permanent Internet land. If the blogger is open to both sides and willing to engage in comments, it can be a great post.

    I will say, controversial topics get the hits. Last week’s Thriller Thursday had the most ever, and I worried it being ignored because it was so sad.

    Anyway, great post:)

    Reply
  15. Catherine Johnson

     /  March 27, 2012

    Totally agree with you, I used to visit two very controversial bloggers who swore all the time and hammed up anything risque but I don’t go anymore, they just wanted numbers it was bit sad really. Piper on the other hand handles more mature topics without the shock tactics and she adds a tonne of humour. I hate to miss her posts when I’m stretched.

    Reply
  16. great post August. I certainly gave some thought to my series on the learned roles of children – some people are adamantly opposed to such an idea. but I followed much of your advice – verified my sources, verified my facts etc and so far so good.

    good advice,

    Reply
  17. BoJo Photo

     /  March 27, 2012

    I disagree! I disagree!!! 🙂 Just joking.

    Great tips August.

    I like that you emphasize the effect words have on others as once they are out there it is impossible to take them back.

    Consideration and respect two great words.

    My favorite is number one. I like to wait a week or two before publishing people’s portraits as it gives me time to consider how well the photos represent the image I envision for them.

    Reply
    • Ha! 🙂 Controversy seems to abound in every art form. That distance from our work can make a big difference by means of bringing clarity.

      Reply
  18. Great advice, August. It’s really easy to inadvertantly offend people in writing because you don’t get the immediate cues you get in person and you make a lot of good points for tackling that risk. Just in case, I’m going to check out sock songs for my next post.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  19. I avoid these kind of posts like the plague; the black plague that is. In fact I rarely comment on anything too combustible for fear a flame war might arise, mortal enemies and unsubscribing can follow…I used to blog on a site that had tons of political content, so I had to be careful. I tiptoed in and out…
    If I ever do post something controversial (pink ribbons vs. red since I had heart surgery…) I would do it with my usual sense of humor…
    Great advice!

    Reply
  20. This is great advice on something I regularly struggle with — not just when it comes to blogging, but on Facebook and Twitter as well.

    Sometimes controversy shouldn’t be part of your brand (Susan G. Komen for the Cure, for example). It pains me to stay silent about issues I care deeply about. I feel like a hypocrite. But I believe I can reach more people with my core message if I avoid alienating that half of the population who will disagree with me on any given issue.

    So for now, I don’t invite controversy. Maybe that will change. I believe that spirited debate is part of how we grow and learn from each other, as long as that debate remains civil. But some people don’t agree. They just want everyone to get along. And if those people are part of my target audience, then I need to consider their feelings as well.

    Reply
  21. I think you sum it up perfectly with aiming for optimism. Thanks

    Reply
  22. For me personally, whether or not I’m going to touch something controversial depends on whether it fits with what I want my blog to be. I loved Kristen Lamb’s post on this because it reminded me that I don’t want my blog to be about politics or religion. I debate about those two topics freely in my off-screen life, but I don’t feel like they have a place in my on-screen life where there’s too much room for misunderstanding.

    What I’ve found interesting is the couple of times I’ve written a post not expecting it to stir up debate the way it did–for example, when I wrote about second chances and when I wrote about trying vs. doing. But I found that everyone was respectful in their comments, and I loved reading and responding to all of them, even the ones who didn’t agree with me.

    Reply
    • I’m with you there, Marcy. Knowing what topics we’re comfortable discussing and those we’re not can save us from frustration and headaches.

      Reply
  23. Might I add an addendum to No. 1 of ‘Ways to handle…’?

    Never go anywhere near your computer if you have alcohol in your system! When we’re inebriated we tend to have more courage and more up for a good fight(read:debate)! Lol. 😉

    But an excellent post, August! I’m very opinionated so I do address issues if I feel strongly about something. But like you said, knowledge is very important and if I don’t know anything about a topic I try to keep my mouth shut.

    Reply
  24. Like Coleeen, I tend to stay away from the controversial subjects. I was raised not to bring most of those topics up in converstaion and I’ve carred that ideal right over to my blog. What can I say. *shrugs*

    Reply
  25. Stacy S. Jensen

     /  March 29, 2012

    I used to work in community newspapers, so I’m surprised when I’m surprised my a new controversy. It sort of numbed me to a lot of the drama sometimes found on the Internet. The funniest example of a controversial post was a mom blogger, who wrote about making a different kind of grilled cheese sandwich. I can’t recall the type of cheese she used, but BOY the comments were crazy like “I can’t afford your fancy cheeses … ” etc. I learned in newspapers it’s often the little stuff that creates controversy.

    Reply
  26. You may be the most intelligent blogger on WordPress! When it comes to the science of blogging, that is!

    Reply
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