5 Ways to Write Something That Catches Hell

There are about 100 ways to become a better writer.

For example, you could:

  • Listen to Ira Glass’ This American Life
  • Think like a psychologist.
  • Rack up rejections.
  • Write like mad.

But did you know catching hell can help you sharpen your copy chops, too?

That’s right. Rocking the boat forces you to defend your ideas, examine what you can stomach, stretch your world and test the waters.

Let’s explore these ideas.

Defend Your Ideas

Solitude is sacred domain for writers. It’s where they contemplate and churn out their ideas. And unless you’re J. D. Salinger, those ideas will eventually see light.

When they do–enter the critics.

Don’t cringe or snub your nose at critics. They serve a function: challenging what you write.

But here’s the deal: if critics aren’t paying attention to you then you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Listen: You want critics to pay attention to you. To feel threatened by what you write. It’s a sign of their recognition of your authority

An authority they’d love to take down.

That’s where you, my friend, roll up your sleeves, lick your knuckles and put up your fists. Even if you think you’ll lose. Because the tussle that ensues will teach you more about who you are and why you think the way you do.

I’m not advocating an air-tight fundamentalist mindset…

I’m advocating for you to grow as a writer, which means examining why you think the way you do and evaluating whether what you think is correct or not.

In the public square is where ideas are refined. Improved. And sharpened.

You’ll lose some fights, win others, all with the goal of gaining wisdom. Wisdom to know when to shut your mouth and when to speak up. When to confront critics and when to ignore them.

But you’ll never reach that place unless you catch a little hell. How much hell you can take brings me to my next point.

Examine What You Can Stomach

I confess: I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like bringing attention to myself. And I have a certain level of hell I can stomach.

That’s the thing: it differs from person to person. Some people love to catch a mountain of it. Others a mole hill. You won’t know if you never try. So that means you have to…

Stretch Your World

If you force yourself to catch hell you are expanding your borders. You are crossing from the known to the unknown.

I can’t think of a better way that creates opportunity for good things to happen to you.

Catch a little hell and people who didn’t know you yesterday can’t stop talking about you today.

Test the Waters

When you stir the pot you discover what people respond to. Think of it as an experiment. You are looking for something new. Something that strikes a nerve.

Hiding behind garden-variety advice on a blog–whether you’re dishing out gardening tips or financial tactics–for example, is a guaranteed way to keep your feet planted on the ground…

Smack in the middle of the crowd.

What you need to do is defy gravity. You need to rise above the noise.

But you’ll never know how to do that unless you test the waters. And catching a little hell is great way to do that.

5 Ways to Write Something That Catches Hell

Let me warn you: a steady diet of controversy will eat you alive.

Think Lindsay Lohan. Alec Balwin. Julian Assange. Any president. Fox News. News of the World.

These people/things age fast.

And they learn how to cheat to stay ahead.

That means your catch-hell strategy needs to be carefully planned. Slowly.

You could get by in the early days of your blog or books creating conflict every day to gain critical mass. Soon you’ll need to take your foot off the pedal.

By then it might too late. Your readers will expect controversy.

Instead, select topics carefully and, there is nothing scientific about this, space them a month apart–more or less. That way you avoid burning the conflict candle at both ends.

So how exactly do you write a marginally scandalous post, book or article? Try these five methods on for size.

1. Challenge a popular person or position.

We look up to celebrities as authorities. Often their word is gospel so when we call it BS we bring attention to ourselves.

How dare we challenge their wisdom!

We’ll here’s the deal: he who puts his pants on like me is like me in another respect, namely, he’s a human.

And if you’re a human there’s a good chance you’ll mess up once and a while and say or do stupid stuff.

I do.

My When Vaynerchuck Said [Blank] He Was Wrong post is an example of challenging an authority. It didn’t make waves, but that’s okay. I’m testing the waters. Stretching my borders. Thinking through and defending my ideas.

That’s going to make me a better writer. And it will you, too.

2. Expose a dirty secret.

Julian Assange has made an enviable career out of uncovering the skeletons people and institutions hide in their closests. He went from sheer backwoods obscurity to international popularity king in less than five years.

He built that empire by going to war against a common enemy.

People eat that stuff up.

If you’ve got the dirt on a person or organization that will make people’s jaw drop–you may want to consider sharing it. Especially if people’s lives are at stake.

3. Challenge the status quo.

If you think guest posting [a popular method for building a blogging audience] is a stupid idea and proof that it is, then write the post.

If you think prayer SHOULD be in school [notice the status qou is the opposite], then write the article.

And make sure you tell us why.

Everyone wants to know why and will respect you for your compelling argument even if they still disagree with you.

4. Question authority.

This includes established rules, laws, best practices.

What’s at the heart of questioning authority [as opposed to one or three above] is that you are going straight for the throat of the person or decree.

In other words, you don’t just think a person’s ideas are stupid…

You think THEY are stupid.

You have to be careful on this one, though, because you can easily slip into an ad hominem attack. Do that and you look like the fool.

There are cases where this is appropriate, though, like when you’re dealing with the Robert Mugabees of the world.

Dictators and sociopaths need to be taken down. And we need people with courage to do it.

Now, off the top of my head I can’t think of any sociopaths or dictators in the blogging, tech or writing world. But I’m sure they’re there. Got any ideas?

5. Toe the line of racy.

This one is easy, cheap and sleazy. But it works.

That’s why some magazine’s love to put half nude people on the cover. And toeing the line of racy is Cosmopolitan’s bread and butter.

Lisa Kanarek’s Working Naked is a classy blog that’s sure to get people looking. [Whether she’s catching hell, I don’t know.]

There is a problem with this tactic: everyone is trying to toe that line…

And when every one is racy no one is racy. In that world you’ve got to put your clothes back on to upset people.

Your Turn

So tell me, what am I missing here? What tips can you share on writing a blog post that will catch hell? What do you think makes up a scandalous article or book? Share ideas from the present and past if you know any.

And by the way: it’s okay to catch hell in the comments section, too.

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  1. says

    Great advice, some of the most entertaining people have a contrarian side, it’s also interesting that in this age of information overload and instant dissemination of “news” it is very easy to find topics where we can use one of your 5 steps to create a stir.

    • says

      Hey Peter, you’re right about the contrarians. I guess that’s why we admire them, right? We sort of live vicariously through them.

      Your second thought is intriguing: it never occurred to me there was an advantage to information overload, but I can see where you’re coming from.

      Thanks for sharing and look forward to talking to you in the future.

  2. says

    I do this practically every day on Facebook. 😉

    Been thinking about shifting that to a blog. But I need a plan on monetizing it, because I know it’s going to take time and generate comments, etc. It will catch lots of hell, but right now, I don’t have time for that unless it brings in income. :)

    Any advice, Chief?