Writing about difficult issues

by Stratton Craig

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Most people want to avoid difficult issues – it’s human nature. But there may be a time when it’s not avoidable. Writing a letter about a delicate matter, whether it’s personal or a work related is tough. Most of the time we don’t want to cause conflict, hurt someone or risk hurting ourselves. 
But what happens when you find yourself in that situation?
When we asked: “what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to write? Was it something for work, or something personal?” on the LinkEds and Writers Forum on LinkedIn, we got a mixed response. Whereas some people said work related issues were the hardest – like writing a resignation letter, writing a performance review, or writing a résumé, many people agreed that writing about death and tragedy was the hardest. This included reporters writing about tragic accidents and people writing obituaries for family and friends. So it seems there are three common themes – writing about yourself, writing about death and writing about traumatic events.
Writing about ourselves
So, why do so many of us find it hard to write about ourselves? Surely it’s the one topic we’re experts in. When you write a personal résumé your main aim is to seek the approval of others but it can be hard to portray yourself in the right way to complete strangers. Having to write your life into one paragraph that’s clear and concise is, for many, an intimidating task. It can be hard to bring our achievements to life on paper, so we’ve put together some tips to help get you there:
Identify your audience. Before you start writing it’s important to find out who you’re writing for and for what medium or channel. A bio for a personal web page will be different to writing a personal résumé so adapt your writing skills appropriately – do you want it to be funny, formal, professional or personal?
Just start writing. Don’t be afraid to go into autopilot. Just start jotting down words about yourself and you’ll be surprised with what you come up with. It also means you won’t get stuck trying to come up with the perfect first line – you can return to that later. 
Be yourself. It might sound obvious but it’s important to just be you. Adding personal, humanizing details gives you the chance to add some personality to your writing. It’s a good way to invite the reader to care. Include important achievements, tell them what you are known for and back it up with evidence. 
Let someone else do the hard work. Don’t literally get someone to write your personal bio but asking a friend or family member’s opinion of you will help you learn how to portray yourself on paper. 
Writing about death (obituaries)
This is unlikely to come easily to anyone. For those who find themselves having to write about a death, it becomes a very personal matter. There are no tips to make it any easier, just a couple of things to remember:
Write to keep their memory alive. Write about their quirks, their passions, and the things they always used to say. Memories of people are precious and writing down these memories is a way to hold onto them. 
Make it compelling. Focus on the life lived rather than anything else and write it as a celebration of life. 
Writing about traumatic events
Research suggests writing about a trauma can actually benefit you psychologically. A study by Jamie Pennebaker found that one of the best therapies for trauma is to write about it. The benefit is creating a story that links together emotional memories. Making traumatic events more coherent means memories of these events are less likely to repeatedly come into your mind. Your memories won’t be forgotten but they can be laid to rest.
Other tips
When writing about a sensitive issue, each situation will be different and that’s why there isn’t one piece of advice that works for all. However we’ve come up with a few tips that might help. 
Match the tone of the content to the reader’s feelings. The tone of your writing is really important as it projects your mood. It conveys a particular message from you and affects how the reader receives the message you are communicating. If you spoke to someone in a cold tone, you may well find the response is equally standoffish. The same can happen with written communications. When choosing the right tone for a piece of writing, ask yourself:
Why are you writing it?
Who is the audience?
What do you want your reader to do with the information and how do you want them to feel or respond?
Approach the subject directly. Sometimes it’s best to get straight to the point. Some people believe that bad news should be buried, dressed up or dumbed down, but this can confuse the person reading it and lead to feelings of anxiety or anger. 
Formal vs. Informal. Depending on the situation, conversational writing may be the best option – writing the way you speak often makes you sound much more natural. Say your message aloud as though you were speaking to a friend. That way you’ll hear any awkward sentences. Swap sayings like “in the event of…” to “if…” and “due to the fact…” for “because…”.
Have confidence. When you use a polite, confident and respectful tone, readers are much more likely to agree and accept the message you are conveying. Confidence is key to effortless writing. But how do you boost your writing confidence? Edit your work ruthlessly. Cut out unnecessary words and try using different adjectives or nouns to make it sound more natural or energetic. Shorten some sentences and lengthen others with more descriptive language to change the pace of the overall piece and you’ll soon see the difference between good and great. 
Look at it with fresh eyes. Put the piece of writing aside for a day and come back to it with fresh eyes. A space of 24 hours will help you see what you couldn’t see before and give you the chance to fix it. 
Show emotion. In the same way we check our writing for grammar and spelling mistakes, we should also make sure that the language we use is inclusive. You have to really feel what you are writing otherwise your words will come across as meaningless. Fabricating emotions can be obvious in person and on paper so it’s important to explain why and how you feel a particular way in order to demonstrate the value of your writing. Sharing your feelings often shows honesty, compassion and transparency – traits that people look for when dealing with sensitive issues. 
Ask someone you trust to read your writing. Get someone to read what you’ve written and ask them to give you honest feedback about the tone of your writing. Although it’s important to show emotion in your writing, sometimes it can get the better of you.
Do you have any tips to share when it comes to writing about a sensitive issue? Feel free to share them in our comment box below. 

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