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Information and education about psychology, gender, and trauma.

Advice and reflections on writing, research, and life in academia. 

Posts written by Dr. Jem Tosh and Dr. Lucy Thompson. 

Strategies for Writing About Emotive Content

by Dr. Jem Tosh

I'm currently writing my third book, which focuses on sexual violence in medical contexts. I'm almost finished (yeah!), but I'm still working on chapter five and, in particular, a tricky section on a kind of violence that is very distressing to read or write about. I'm used to this - to reading through personal or professional accounts of sexual abuse, murder, domestic violence and so on. That's my job. I've been doing it for almost 15 years, but that doesn't make it an easy job to do. So here are some of the ways I manage writing about emotive content:

1. Work smarter, not harder

This is a motto I constantly remind myself of when I start to panic about upcoming deadlines. The truth is I'm very good at working hard - almost too good. But all that hard work comes at a price. I like to focus on a single task for a really, really long time, and I don't like having to stop or change to something else.

I learned (the hard way) that I can accomplish the same amount of work in less time if I just prioritise my self-care. Due to my love of working very long hours, this means keeping to a strict schedule, with timers or alarms if necessary. So I make rules that work best for me, and I stick to them.

Taking a break or stopping is actually one of my most productive 'thinking' times. If I have been reading all morning, after my lunch break I know how I want to structure what I've read and how it fits into the big picture of the piece. If I've been writing all morning, I know exactly how I want to edit it. It means I can come back to a piece of writing with 'fresh eyes' everyday. So, overall, the cliché is true - less is more.

2. Watch out for wormholes

I like to picture that scene from Donnie Darko, where he sees a wormhole in time protrude from his stomach and he follows it around. I use this word to describe when I find something interesting, something I don't want to let go of, something I would love nothing more than to spend many countless hours reading about it. This is particularly easy to do with emotive content - sometimes we can go looking for some kind of closure, or hoping that if we read to the end of a story the ending will make us feel better.

The question I ask myself in this situation is - 'Is this necessary?' If it is, then I might need to rethink my schedule and add in extra time to chase up this important piece of information. If it's not, then I need to recognise it for what it is - a wormhole that will result in me losing a lot of time with little to show for it.

3. Know thyself

How do you respond to trauma? How do you respond to vicarious trauma?

I have spent years learning (and healing) from my own trauma, so I know how I react very well. I know the different sensations in my body and what they mean, and what I need to do to recover from it. I know when to stop, when to push through - when to confront a difficult emotion, and when to distract and ground myself before attempting to address a memory or thought with support. Sometimes this is a friend, a colleague, or a therapist. Sometimes it's a rape crisis helpline.

Once I've taken the time to rest and recover, if I can't write for a while, I'll edit. If I can't do that, I'll go looking for resources and just save them to read later. If I can't do that, I'll format my reference list. It's like having a hierarchy of tasks based on difficulty and I work down the list for something I can do. If I can't do any of it, that's fine too. That's life - that's being human - and a survivor of sexual abuse. If I need to rest, I do. If I need to cancel a project or push a deadline, I do. Break the deadline, not yourself.

4. Music, art, and objects

I surround myself with things that help me get through a difficult piece. This includes choosing the right music. If I'm feeling stressed and tense, or even fearful because a piece is reminding me of my own experiences of violence, I will choose relaxing or meditation music. Sometimes it will just be the sound of water, because I find that most relaxing of all.

I also have objects and art around me that I find comforting, soothing, safe, and empowering. I particularly like my print from Joanna Thangiah that states 'It's only her fault if she's the rapist'. This is because, personally, I can find it difficult to read through so much content that assumes women are victims and men are rapists and that's it - I've had multiple women abusers, so reading this content feels like a twist of the knife every time. This pain from being erased from the conversation around sexual violence is helped by surrounding myself with artistic and activist work that makes me feel heard and supported.

I also have soft objects around me, like soft blankets and cushions. These are things that I can wrap myself up with or hold when I'm reading or writing a piece that has me feeling unsafe or in pain. Again, this isn't to help me 'push through' a writing goal that harms me, but to support me in areas where it's starting to get difficult. If it gets too difficult, I stop, seek support, and take as many breaks as I need.

5. Know what works

In addition to recognising the signs that I'm starting to feel overwhelmed by the emotive content I'm writing about, I know what works with distracting and soothing those feelings. I distract first (based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy - DBT), such as reading fiction, watching Netflix, or listening to music. I have collections set aside for these very moments - they have been checked in advance to make sure there is no triggering content. They feel soothing to watch, either because I've been watching them since I was young, or they have a lighthearted feel. For music, I pick songs with lyrics that will make me feel better, not worse (not an easy task if you're a feminist and a heavy metal fan).

Then I soothe - for this I tend to use meditation, anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes at a time. I use guided visualisations often, and I go to trauma-informed restorative yoga when I can. My local yoga centre has taken steps to ensure that the space is welcoming and safe for survivors, including having explicit discussions about consent and touching when being helped by instructors.

Or sometimes I just sleep.

6. Checking in

Because I can enjoy my work too much and forget that I need I do things - like move around or drink water - I regularly 'check in' with myself. I stop and do a body scan based on mindfulness techniques to see, am I tired? Do I need to get up and walk around? Do I need to stop because this is too upsetting? Do I need to eat something? When was the last time I went outside?

If you're reading or writing about something highly emotive, try every hour or so just asking yourself, how are you doing right now?

7. Going freelance

I am aware that some of these strategies will not be available to all - especially things like taking lots of breaks and pushing deadlines. Academia (and many other work contexts) are not welcoming to people with chronic illness, disabilities, or neurodiversity. So, one of the other 'strategies' I found helpful, was finding a work environment that did support my needs and could be flexible enough for me to find that 'sweet spot' - where I work best and produce my best work. At this point in time, it meant creating that space for myself - and going freelance.

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also known as Dr. Jemma Tosh (deadname)


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