Journalism, Tough Issues, Jonathan Merritt

How to Write About Tough Topics Without Rankling Readers, by Jonathan Merritt

How we talk about God matters because how we talk always matters: language does more to us and for us than we know.”

This wise warning from Lauren Winner alerts us to the importance of paying attention to what we say. You do not need to convince me that her words are true.

As a columnist who focuses on religion and politics, my job is to write about contentious topics and hot button issues. This vocation makes me something of a target for my many critics, and the bullseye on my back grows larger when the issue du jour is exceptionally divisive.

Having done this work for more than a decade, I am embarrassed to admit that my mouth often tastes like foot. I have made statements in print that I wish I could take back. Comments have slipped out in interviews that I wish I had swallowed. Often, I said the write thing in the wrong way and later wish I could rephrase it.

When you’re in the business of words, sooner or later the words you use will end up using you.

Words can use you to offend.

Words can use you to stir up anger.

Words can use you to inflict pain.

For this reason, it is imperative that writers learn how to write well when covering tough topics. Before wading into murky waters, I often suggest young writers practice the “STOP method”:


As soon as you finish a blog post or article, it’s tempting to push publish and let the chips fall where they may. But rather than rush, sit still for a moment. Ask yourself whether this is really something you’re ready to say and tabulate all who may be negatively affected by it. If you sit with that and still want to proceed…


Your gut is not a great guide to decision making. We’ve all heard the advice about writing a letter and then putting in a drawer for sometime before sending it. The advice is sound because time has a way of clearing our minds, soothing our anger, and drawing out our better angels.


Solomon said there is wisdom in many counselors. You may assume an article is ready to publish, but others may see what you cannot. Hand your article to one or two people you trust and then observe their reactions. If they feel uncomfortable and their reasoning is sound, you can assume many others like them will be too.


After you’ve refined your words based on wise counsel, it is time to release them into the world. Take a deep breath and proceed with publishing. Depending on the topic, you’ll probably still receive criticism. But you can defend your work with confidence knowing you’ve done your due diligence.

The need to speak bold words in a wise way is one of the reasons I founded Write Brilliant Academy, a 16-week online course to train aspiring writers who want to live their calling.

I’ve even created a FREE 3-part mini-course called Jumpstart My Writing to help writers start, sustain, and share their work.

But for all of you whose knees are still knocking, here’s a quick video: “What to Do When Your Topic Rankles Your Readers.” As someone who has landed in hot water too many times, I want to help you avoid the mistakes I learned the hard way.

Winner is dead right: “How we talk always matters.”

Jonathan Merritt is one of America’s most popular religion columnists. He is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, senior columnist for Religion News Service, and author of Jesus is Better Than You Imagined.

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