The KEY to writing about tough topics

Now, I’m not claiming to be the most experienced writer of tough topics, or even the most experienced writer at all. I only have one novel that’s completely written (kind of), and while it covers a variety of tough topics like sexual assault, mental illness, and sexuality, I have personal experience with all but one of them.

But I can say that in my four years of writing this book, I’ve wanted to write about that one topic to the best of my ability. And there’s one thing that I’ve found helps put my mind at ease above all else.


It’s important; so, so important. It matters when you’re writing about anything you don’t know much about, but it especially matters when writing about tough topics. Writing things like these in the wrong way can offend those reading who have experienced what you’re trying to portray and may cause damage in the long run.

And when I say research, I’m not just talking about reading one or two websites about it. I’m talking about days, months worth of research. You have to get this right.

Nothing grinds my gears more than a book about an abusive relationship that’s clearly based solely on a list of red flags the author found on Google.

So how do you get started with this ever so important research?

Well, it comes down to a mix of two terms you all probably learned about in seventh grade science class: primary and secondary research.

Step 1: Secondary Research

I know it’s called secondary research, but in this case, it’s pretty important to do this first. Conducting primary research before knowing anything about your subject could lead to disaster and a lot of hurt feelings.

In case your seventh grade knowledge has been wiped out of your brain, this is the process of compiling research that someone else already conducted. It’s pretty hard, but you’ll get better at it as you go along.

To start, I like to look at writing blogs that have compiled some sources for writers already! One of my favorites is Fuck Yeah Character Development, who has a long list of resources for writers, depending on what you’re looking for.

Some other good ones are:

Many of these blogs also have an ask feature that allows you to ask the admins questions specific to your novel’s themes, and often they will reply with a few reference links to get you started.

When it comes to finding your own sources, I recommend thinking outside of the box when searching, and even reading actual books on the subject you’re looking into. There are so many resources out there, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to the first page of the first Google search you can think of.

Look up Youtube videos of people talking about their experiences, find books written for people struggling with what you’re writing about. I can’t stress enough how much is out there for you, guys.

One of my favorite things to do, personally, is to read forums about the topic I want more information on. It’s great for finding additional resources, but also often has posts that feature first-hand accounts with the topic I’m writing on, saving me and my social anxiety the stress of…dun, dun, dun…primary research.

Step 2: Primary Research

So, as writers, much of our primary research won’t involve any sort of quantitative data. It’ll be more qualitative. Some of this is easy, like eavesdropping on high schoolers at your local library to get a glimpse into how they talk. But with tough topics, it’s a bit harder, at least for those of us that are afraid of people.

It’s interviewing.

Like, people who have real-life experience with what you’re trying to write about, or at least people who know a bit more about it than you do.

Now, some people I know have experienced what I’m writing about; it’s why I decided to write about it in the first place. I’ve talked to them firsthand about their experiences, and I’ve gotten a lot of great information from those chats. But something I’d love to do is interview others who have gone through the same thing, just to get additional perspectives.

I’m kind of scared to, especially because I really don’t want to accidentally offend any strangers, so I haven’t got many tips on this.

But I do highly, highly recommend it. You can truly see the difference in books that are written by authors who interviewed compared to those who didn’t. Here’s a great list of resources about interviewing provided by Writing World.

Now, like I said, I’m not the most experienced writer or researcher.

But if there’s anything I hope you gained from this post, it’s that research is incredibly important when writing.

And you should do it, especially if you’re writing about an unfamiliar, tough topic.

Thanks for reading! Tell me about your experience — what tough topic are you writing about, if any, and have you started researching? What’s the biggest roadblock you’ve faced?

To keep up with me outside of this blog, follow me on twitter at @stephclaires and on instagram at @lovelyliterati


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