5 Tips for Writing About Controversial Topics

Bestselling author Syed M. Masood shares his top 5 tips for how to handle a controversial topic in your work.
Author:
Publish date:

I might not be the right author for this piece. I just want to admit that upfront.

Yes, my work is considered controversial in some quarters. I mean, my next book is called The Bad Muslim Discount. Obviously, that was always going to raise some eyebrows.

(Syed M. Masood: Let Your Characters Surprise You)

But I truly don’t set out to be controversial. My fictional worlds are based on the truths I know and have experienced. My goal has always been to tell these truths in the most entertaining way possible. That’s it. It just so happens that there are people—holding a wide variety of beliefs on the ideological spectrum—who find these truths uncomfortable. That, so far as I am concerned, is more of a ‘them’ problem than a ‘me’ problem.

So, what I’m saying is that if you are at your keyboard cackling like a supervillain because you’re looking to piss people off for the sake of pissing people off, I really have nothing to offer you. We’re not writing from the same place. But most authors, I believe, are just trying to tell the stories they know best and, sometimes, these stories happen to deal with controversial subjects.

So, for those kindred spirits, here are some tips on how to write—and perhaps cope with having written—something controversial.

5 Tips for Writing About Controversial Topics

1. Offend with Purpose

There is nothing wrong with offending the right people. When you’re making a point, especially about complex, sensitive, or painful topics, you are going to irritate some people.

If I say, to use a simplistic and clear-cut example, that “racism is evil,” and that offends racists…well, good.

What you want don’t want to do is give offense unintentionally. You don’t want to offend people you aren’t trying to offend. Mean what you say without being mean as often as possible.

2. Ask Yourself "Why"

Know the reason you are writing about a difficult subject. Have a purpose behind the story you are telling.

In The Bad Muslim Discount, one of the issues the characters grapple with is what it means to be Muslim and what it means to be American, and not everyone is going to agree with the conclusions my characters reach. That’s totally cool. The purpose is to have the conversation, to see some of the different sides of it, to appreciate that reasonable and good people can disagree.

Obviously, I’m personally invested in this discourse. It is important to me. Make sure what you’re writing about is important to you. That’ll help you treat it with respect.

The Bad Muslim Discount

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

3. Write with Love

My YA novel, More Than Just a Pretty Face, deals with a very different set of issues. It addresses, among other things, issues within the desi, Muslim community that I feel need to be addressed.

I have a great deal of affection for the people who make up this community. I am from them. So, when I do point out areas we need to work on, I’m not doing so with malice, but with hope.

This also allows you to write characters who disagree with your points of view with more empathy and accuracy, by the way. You can side with a son who wants to pursue his dreams and be a chef. But you don’t have to make the father who worries about how viable a career that is for his kid a villain if you at least attempt to understand him.

4. Write the Truth

Yes, all fiction is fiction. And, no, I’m not saying not to write fantasy or sci-fi worlds. I’m saying that if you write about controversial topics, tell the truth as you understand it. You might be wrong, but you’re going to have an easier time dealing with questions that are posed to you (and, more importantly, an easier time living with yourself) if you did your best to be honest in your writing.

Also, you’ll have an easier time selling your work, in my opinion. People say “sex sells,” and that’s true, but earnestness—even if it isn’t as much fun—also sells.

(Tips for Writing About Controversial Topics in Fiction)

5. Be Balanced

Don’t worry about what people say about your themes. Worry about what they say about your craft.

When More Than Just a Pretty Face came out, I was a little surprised by some of the criticism I got. I knew that my novel for adults, The Bad Muslim Discount, had the potential to stir the pot a little, but my sweet YA rom-com? I was not expecting any backlash.

But I did get some. I don’t read reviews anymore (a practice I highly recommend), but even then, people will tell you things. Sometimes they’ll even tag you on social media. Sometimes your mom will go on Goodreads and want to know why some people think the Muslim representation in your book isn’t accurate.

Don’t worry about it. I know that is easier said than done, but it is also easier if you’ve followed Tips 1 through 4. Find peace with your work. You told the truth, you told it with love, you were precise, and you had a purpose. You did good.

One of the highest compliments I received was someone saying they were offended by More Than Just a Pretty Face but couldn’t stop reading it. I am absolutely, completely good with that, and I think you should be too. 

Character Development Creating Memorable Characters

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range.

Click to continue.

e.g. vs. i.e. (Grammar Rules)

e.g. vs. i.e. (Grammar Rules)

Let's look at the differences between e.g. and i.e. with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

20 Authors Share Their Biggest Surprise in the Writing Process

20 Authors Share Their Biggest Surprises in the Writing Process

Experienced writers know to expect the unexpected. Here are surprises in the writing process from 20 authors, including Amanda Jayatissa, Paul Neilan, Kristin Hannah, and Robert Jones, Jr.

Ruth Hogan: On Infusing Personal Interests in Fiction

Ruth Hogan: On Infusing Personal Interests in Fiction

Author Ruth Hogan discusses the process of learning a new skill in writing her new novel, The Moon, The Stars and Madame Burova.

Do You Find an Editor or Agent First?

Do You Find an Editor or Agent First?

It's a common question asked by writers looking to get their first book published: Do you find an editor or agent first? The answer depends on each writer's situation.

writer's digest wd presents

WDU Presents: 7 New WDU Courses, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new WDU courses, a chance at publication, and more!

What Is a Professional Editor and Why Should Writers Use One?

What Is a Professional Editor and Why Should Writers Use One?

Editor is a very broad term in the publishing industry that can mean a variety of things. Tiffany Yates Martin reveals what a professional editor is and why writers should consider using one.

From Script

How to Find the Right Reader for Feedback, Writing Female Characters and Tapping into Emotionally Authentic Characters (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script Magazine, read film reviews from Tom Stemple, part three of writing female characters, interviews with Free Guy scribes Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman, The Eyes of Tammy Faye screenwriter Abe Sylvia, and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Chasing Trends

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Chasing Trends

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is chasing trends in writing and publishing.

Lessons Learned From Self-Publishing My Picture Book

Lessons Learned From Self-Publishing My Picture Book

Author Dawn Secord shares her journey toward self-publishing a picture book featuring her Irish Setter named Bling.