Stop! Don’t touch! . . . At least not until you put on your oven mitts anyway.
We’ve had a lot of interest in touchy and untouchable topics within the Christian market. A few weeks ago, I looked at what makes a topic untouchable. This week, I’m giving you a few hints that have allowed Lisa and I to write about almost anything else.
(1) Find a Christian Who Has Dealt with It, Had It, or Cared about Someone with It
Between us, we’ve written about the occult, AIDS, anorexia, drug abuse, pornography, human trafficking, and many other prickly topics, all for Christian magazines and newspapers. A key to delving into the swamps and trying to shine light into the murk is to find someone who’s slogged through it. Talk to a Christian with real battle experience. Who cares about the knight in shining armor? His armor is only that shiny because he spends all day in the ivory tower with a bucket of polish. Show me a knight with tarnished, broken, blood-stained armor, and I’ll show you someone who knows what it means to fight.
When Lisa writes on drug abuse, she tells the stories of men she met while working for Teen Challenge. Their stories of how they got addicted (some of them accidentally through prescription drugs they initially needed for pain), how they deceived and used the people around them, and how they got clean again give a face to a dangerous issue.
Show the Christian connection by finding a Christian who has been there. If you can prove to an editor that this is something Christians deal with, they’ll probably take a shot at printing it (as long as you follow the other guidelines below).
(2) Make a Strong Biblical Argument for Why Christians Should Care
As Christians, we try to find the balance between showing mercy and holding people accountable for sin. We need to take a stand against what’s wrong, but we also need to pick up and dust off those who have fallen. Not always an easy line to walk.
I tackled an article on AIDS leading up to World AIDS Day on December 1st. Most AIDS victims in North America contracted the disease through unprotected, extramarital sex or intravenous drug use—in other words, through sin. One attitude I encountered among Christians while I was writing this article was, “Why should we help people who are simply suffering the consequences of their own actions? Won’t we be seen as condoning sin?” For my article to stand a chance, I had to know that some Christians felt this way, and I had to answer their objections. And I had to do it using Scripture.
I couldn’t tell them how to help until I’d convinced them that they should.
(3) Avoid Preaching, Preachiness, Self-Righteousness, or Judgment
When Stacey McKenzie from Testimony approached me about writing an article on Harry Potter, she was upfront about the fact that they couldn’t promise to publish it. Although they wanted to print something on new age/occult practices that Christians argue over, they also wanted to be careful to avoid any “preachiness.” Nothing turns a reader off faster than feeling like someone is shaking a finger in their face.
When it comes to explosive issues, you need to respect your reader’s intelligence. Don’t tell them what to think. Show them why you care enough to fight for this issue. Tell them the key facts, give them the best arguments that you can find from both sides, and then let them decide for themselves. Convicting and changing hearts is the Holy Spirit’s job.
(If you want to see my Harry Potter article, “Is There Harm in Harry?” is scheduled to appear in Testimony’s January issue.)
(4) Choose Your Language Carefully
Knowing your audience is key. While you don’t want to sugar coat an issue, you also need to judiciously select how much reality your readers are willing to face. Do they need to simply see the dirty diaper to know that a change needs to be made, or do they need their nose stuffed right up in it?
Lisa ran across this in her writing on pornography addiction for Renee James of The Link & Visitor. Although Renee wanted her readers to get a clear picture of the damage pornography does to women (along with a picture of hope for recovery), her readers could get the message with the term “pleasuring himself” rather than with the harsher “masturbation.”
You want readers to write to the editor about how informative/helpful/motivational they found your article, not about how offended they were by it. (Though sometimes you won’t be able to avoid offending people.)
(5) Find Experts
You might think that finding experts is just a standard of good reporting, but it becomes twice as much so if you’re dealing with a topic that might insult or offend people. If you make readers angry, they’re going to ask questions like “Who does she think she is to tell me that?” and “What right does he have to say something like that?” The simplest solution is to find an expert and get a quote from them.
This isn’t being cowardly. Think about it—if you’re 50 pounds overweight, are you going to take the admonition “you need drop a few pounds” better from your doctor or your spouse? Even if you’re an expert in the subject yourself, find someone else to back you up.
Keep in mind that an expert is different from someone in the trenches. For example, if you’re writing about anorexia, a Christian who is or has been anorexic, a spouse or parent of an anorexic who helped them recover, or the grieving friend who lost their loved one to complications from anorexia. An expert is a doctor, psychologist, or recovery center coordinator who has professional experience with the disease.