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!

Deadlines: Lifelines for Writers

If you sit around waiting for inspiration, it may never come.

I met an author—let’s call him “Larry”—at a conference last year whose first novel, part one of a trilogy, was soon to come out. When I asked how the second was coming along, he said he didn’t feel much urgency since his deadline lay a year out. Once his publisher set that deadline, his work slowed down—in fact, it stopped.

Perhaps Larry, like many of us, works well under pressure. He may complete the manuscript in two or three months and do a fine job. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so, however, for several reasons. First, taking too much time off from writing can lead to creative atrophy. Once we restart, it may take a while to warm back up to our usual groove. Second, all of those months off are months that could contribute to sharpened writing skills. And third, if Larry only takes a few months to complete one novel, why not finish the next two in the series sooner? The more quality work we complete, the better.

I’m not sure which contributes more to my adoration of deadlines—my work as a journalist or the on-time-is-late gene I inherited from my dad. In either case, I believe deadlines can serve as a lifeline for most writers. Here’s why:

1) Sitting around waiting for our muse to appear is impractical. Sure, being struck with wicked inspiration is awesome. But complacency can block inspiration, in my opinion. When I worked as an actress, I used slow months to create film projects of my own. When times were slow at a magazine I worked for, I wrote additional articles and submitted my work to other publications. And you know what? The work inspired me. It still does. The more routinely we sit down and write, the more inspiring we’ll find the act of doing so. Deadlines, whether set by us or others, helps keep us focused. We have little choice but to work.

2) The Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, the more time we have to complete a project, the longer it will take us to complete it. If Larry set his own deadline of six months rather than twelve and took it seriously, he’d probably meet it. The same goes for all of us.

3) Honing the practice of deadline-keeping promotes professionalism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the interest some agents expressed in representing me stemmed from the skill set journalism requires. One even said, “Ah, so you’re good with deadlines.” (Are you kidding? We’re like BFFS. ;)) Fortunately, you don’t need to work with editors, agents or publishers to get your deadline skills in order.

Tips for Setting Your Own Deadlines and Making them Work

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” — Les Brown

Choose realistic dates. If our deadlines are too far off, we may make like Larry and feel no sense of urgency. They can then sneak up us, causing crazy stress, weakened self confidence or total surrender. (“I give up!”) If our deadlines are too short, we run the risk of little things getting in the way or overwhelming ourselves, which again may inspire us to give up. Deadlines should trigger anticipation and enthusiasm, not panic.

Allow for some wiggle room. I generally have about a week to finish feature articles. I give myself a deadline of two to three days. This way, I have plenty of time for unexpected delays and to review my work with fresh eyes before submitting it. And my editors know that I work fast, so if a short turn around piece arises, I’m a realistic candidate. If you feel confident that you can complete a project in six weeks, take seven or eight. Or set a rough draft deadline of six weeks and a final deadlines of seven.

Set incremental deadlines. If your goal is finishing a novel in one year, setting weekly or monthly goals of a certain amount of work time, pages, words or “chunk” can be helpful. I personally don’t dig goals of specific words or pages because quality matters more to me than quantity. But you should do what works best for you.

Create accountability. The more often you set and meet deadlines, the more likely you’ll be to take them seriously, simply by thinking or stating them. If you need more accountability, try joining or starting a critique or writers group. (FYI, choose critique groups with caution. Taking feedback from a bunch of writers can help or hinder our work. What you want is accountability, not a bunch of contradicting opinions.) Or use the buddy system with a fellow reader or writer. Each week or month, share or exchange x-number of pages, chapters or whatever quality work you’ve churned out.

Reward yourself, but don’t punish. Once you meet a deadline, reward yourself with a day off, new book or whatever else strikes your fancy. If your deadline draws near and you’re way behind, set a new one—preferably not too far off. The beauty of setting our own deadlines is that we can remain flexible. In many cases, editors, agents and publishers will allow extra time if you explain in advance that a few more days or weeks would allow greater work quality. Quality often trumps meeting specific dates.

So, I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts. What do you like or dislike about deadlines? Any points to add? Experiences to share? Challenges we can help you manage? Share, share away…

Truthiness: Raising the Bar in the Blogosphere

“And that brings us to tonight’s word: Truthiness. Now I’m sure some of the word-police, the “wordanistas” over at Websters, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen…” — Stephen Colbert

The other day I came upon a fiction author’s blog—we’ll call her Snazzy. In Snazzy’s latest post, she recommends a particular breed of dietary supplements capable of “preventing colds, lowering the risk of cancer and heart disease and stimulating weight loss” in one fell swoop. She doesn’t work for the supplement or wellness industries (that I know of) and simply wished to share her good fortune with others. Commendable, right? To a point…

The supplements the well-intended Snazzy praised are responsible for a slew of serious side effects. And numerous large-scale studies showed not an ounce of effectiveness. I know because I’ve read the studies and interviewed the researchers.

As a journalist, I spend a great deal of time reading clinical studies and interviewing experts, from physicians and psychologists to sports physiologists and dietitians. These individuals invest extraordinary amounts of time and energy into gaining knowledge, typically in hopes of bettering the world. My heart aches when I think of their vast knowledge and efforts going down the toilet because an unknowing (or careless) blogger with a larger social microphone decided to speak up inappropriately against it.

Now I realize that blogging varies from journalism and other literary forms in numerous ways. Many blogs feature one person’s “musings,”  entertaining quips or videos, philosophical insight or all-things-hilarious. The voice is usually more colloquial than newspapers and texts. But anything goes, right? Many of us use our blogs to inspire, help or guide others. All good stuff! But I feel it’s important to recognize that as bloggers we are self-published authors, even if we go the traditional publishing route elsewhere. The ability to cover any topic our hearts desire brings crazy amazing perks, along with risks and responsibility.

Was it illegal for Snazzy to detail benefits of the supplements she knows little about? Nope. But it was, in my humble opinion, irresponsible and potentially damaging to readers and the literary world as a whole. If we bombard the web with “truthiness,” without revealing it as such, we lower the bar for writers, readers and researchers alike.

While we can’t very well eliminate truthiness from the blogosphere, bookstores or other media singlehandedly or overnight, we can do our part by boosting the authenticity and accuracy of our own work.

Simple Ways to Boost Blog Accuracy (and the Blogosphere as a Whole):

  • Become a responsible reader. Want to write about stopping bullying? Don’t simply say, “More kids get bullied than ever before, especially boys.” Go to Google Scholar and read the latest studies. Interview a psychologist or sociologist. Or quote books published by field experts.
  • When you state statistics, facts or other findings, provide readers with the source. When possible, insert a hyperlink.
  • Address both sides. If you’re presenting a controversial issue or finding, seek out and share an opposing viewpoint. If you prefer to stick to a particular side, simply reference the opposers. (“While not everyone agrees, I believe ______…”)
  • When you state an opinion, present it as such. “In my opinion….” (Think like the judge on “The Good Wife.” ;)) Remember, stirring up some healthy debate is a great thing.
  • Incorporate supportive research, even while covering topics in your area of expertise. Psychologist Michael J. Breus does a great job of this here: Kava Continues to Be A Mystery.
  • Avoid using sources that lack legitimacy, like Wikipedia, outdated books and studies, tabloids and personal home pages.
  • Do rely on universities, newspapers, hospitals, qualified experts and current studies.
  • When addressing theories, don’t mislabel them as facts.
  • When possible, opt for large scale studies or research reviews, which compile findings from numerous studies. (If you simply polled your friends, make it known. “100 percent of those asked…” only means so much when you asked your mom, dad and hamster.)
  • Take articles, blog posts and books not supported by legitimate sources and research with a boatload of salt.
  • If this sounds all like too much work, stick to fiction, opinions, personal narrative and musings. And duh, call them that. 😉

Putting more time, effort and research into our posts makes for better reading, increases our odds of gaining readers’ trust, supports hardworking researchers and adds smartness to our hardworking brains. Sounds like an all around win-win to me.

So what do you say? Am I off my blogger-rocker?? If you hit up heavy topics or offer advice in your blog, do you seek out optimum sources? Or do you leave that up to the reader? Any suggestions to add? Wanna learn more? I love hearing from you!