You’re Not Alone: Writing About Sensitive Topics

Illustration of a doodle at a microphone, with a cat on their head, saying "Ahem...Hello. I'm here to talk about feline hat syndrome."  as a group of other doodles with cats on their heads cheer, saying "We've got your back!" "You're the best!" and "Yay," with another holding a sign saying "Go you!"

Some health issues are really hard to talk about — and even harder to live with. As health writers, it’s part of our job to recognize when health topics require an especially empathetic and compassionate tone (think incontinence, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, or memory problems).

Here are some of our tried-and-true tips for writing about sensitive health topics.

Start by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. What would it be like to live with a health issue you don’t fully understand? What if you were too nervous to talk about it with friends, family, and doctors? What type of information would ease your concerns? What information could increase your knowledge about how to cope with or improve the condition?

Frame it as a common concern. People who are sick or uncomfortable are often scared, too. Try saying something like, “Many people who’ve been abused by a partner have…” or “Some people with herpes find they…” Making an experience seem more common can help it seem less scary.

Acknowledge emotions. Negative emotions like fear and shame can get in the way of clear thinking and making healthy choices. You can make things a little easier for your readers by acknowledging their feelings. You could say: “It may be hard to talk with your doctor about your concerns, but it’s important.”

Be encouraging. You certainly want to keep things positive when writing about a sensitive health topic. Think about including a larger message of hope like, “It’s normal to feel overwhelmed at first, but lots of people have learned to live with a colostomy bag — and you can, too.”

The bottom line: Help people face sensitive health issues by letting them know they’re not alone.