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Writing About Painful Subjects

Pandemic. Who hasn’t heard that word by now? Since early 2020, news about the global spread of the deadly virus known as COVID-19 has dominated the news. We’ve heard about millions of deaths and watched grieving people share stories of the loved ones they lost. We’ve seen exhausted healthcare workers weep while describing the plight of people who died in their hospitals, quarantined, without the comforting presence of family or friends. We’ve read about seemingly healthy people, some of them even children, who died from the disease.

Author Zoe Weil, president and co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education, points out, “For almost all of humanity’s existence on Earth, we had no way of ever knowing what was happening even 100 miles away from us, let alone on every continent.” In those times, people knew only about things that happened nearby. Before the 1900s, news from other places came slowly, if at all. Today, however, we have a 24-hour news cycle that describes events all over the globe and the problems of billions of people.

A Writer’s Role

The information conveyed by radio, TV, online, or written news reports can be stressful, to say the least. Besides COVID and other diseases, there are wars, terrorism, mass shootings, racism, poverty, substance abuse, hunger, displaced persons, human trafficking, and more. Yet, we can’t pretend these things don’t exist, and writers often need to cover such topics, whether on assignment or because we want readers to be informed.

Writers may experience the double strain of hearing about, plus writing about, painful subjects. I’ve written about the sinking of the Titanic and the deadly Triangle Factory fire in New York City, as well as child soldiers, hurricanes, epidemics, and environmental disasters. Though writers want to educate readers and even arouse their compassion, if we overwhelm them, they might stop reading or end up feeling hopeless. We also need to consider our own feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, or despair.

While working with tough subject matter, nonfiction writers aim to be honest and not gloss over the suffering. We try to put a human face on the problems and tragedies we write about. We can also look for something positive to encourage our readers and ourselves. That message of hope often comes in the form of helpers and lessons.

“Look for the Helpers”

The late Fred Rogers, whose kind, calming presence on the long-running Public TV program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” guided countless children, shared this pivotal childhood experience: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” We can apply that idea to our writing by showing examples of love, kindness, generosity, self-sacrifice, heroism, and activism.

Recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic provide many examples, including first-responders and healthcare professionals who have worked tirelessly to save lives and comfort the sick and dying. Restaurateurs, celebrity chefs, and regular citizens have found ways to feed people, after many lost their jobs. Neighbors have reached out to neighbors who needed assistance while quarantined in their homes. Community organizations developed phone chains and online programs to ease people’s loneliness and isolation. Writers can present uplifting stories like these, along with harsh realities.

Helpers can be found in other crises. When I wrote about Hurricane Andrew, which ravaged South Florida in 1992, I noted that Americans contributed millions of dollars for Red Cross relief efforts. Volunteers from other states brought supplies and offered counseling services. Roofers and carpenters came to repair homes and other buildings, while still more volunteers cooked and served food and provided childcare services in relief centers. People donated clothing, toys, furniture, and other goods.

Look for the Lessons

Tragedies and disasters can lead to improved conditions, through reforms, laws, and social change. Crises give us an opportunity to learn from what happened, identify problems more clearly, and make positive changes.

While writing about the 1912 sinking of the luxury liner Titanic, for example, I discussed new laws that were passed after the tragedy to make sea travel safer. Ships were required to carry enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew and must also be equipped with a two-way radio that was operated day and night. The International Ice Patrol was formed to warn ships about icebergs in the North Atlantic. After the Triangle Factory fire in 1911, special commissions studied factory conditions and fire hazards. New York and other states implemented safety measures to help workers, including more frequent inspections, fire prevention laws with stricter penalties, and new building codes.

Light Over Darkness

During the 17th century, George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) struggled with feelings of despair. As he traveled in his native England in 1647, Fox saw political violence, poverty, and disease, among other problems. He wrote in his Journal, “I saw… that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness . . . and I had great openings.”

Fox wrote from his own religious perspective, but the hope for a better world transcends religion, politics, or nationality. By offering readers light amidst dark realities, we can leave them with “openings” of hope and feelings of empowerment to tackle the difficulties that are part of life. Readers might even be inspired to act as helpers and lesson-learners, working for positive change.


Related Links:

“Editorial: Constructive Journalism Is Essential.”

Discusses the prevalence and impact of negative news stories, with suggestions for solution-based journalism that is constructive as well as accurate and realistic.

“How to Cope with the News”

Zoe Weil, M.A., M.T. S., discusses the impact of bad news and ways to stay positive. Though not expressly for writers, this article offers ideas that can help people write about tough subjects.

“The Psychological Effect of Bad News and What You Can Do to Stay Positive”

Discusses ways to find positive responses to painful subjects.

“The Stress of Being a Journalist”

This article addresses the stress that writers can experience while covering subjects that involve pain, violence, loss of life, and disasters, with tips on self-care.



Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles, and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. In recent years, she has written about women in the Gold Rush, famous immigrants, and surfing, among other subjects. She recently completed a 230,000-word nonfiction book.


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