Book Writing

Empathy: The Most Overlooked Quality of Successful Writers

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Alex took a quick sip of Café Bustelo before dipping into the Uber. A writer with a disciplined-yet-flexible routine, she prepared to focus on her goal for the day – 3,000 words. 

Monday through Saturday, Alex would leave her 1-bedroom apartment in search of inspiration. Wondering if she should keep to her book’s outline or let her thoughts lead her to a place where disparate points connect. Either way, she couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t stop writing, unless… 

The Uber glid to a stop in front of her favorite neighborhood diner. It’s off the beaten path, undiscovered by Yelpers (for now), and their WiFi is surprisingly swift. Its large windows are eyes to an urban landscape – a familiar world to Alex featuring strangers with unfamiliar stories. This world provided Alex with the occasional opportunity to give her ears to a stranger and receive knowledge and inspiration in return.

She politely tossed her empty cup of coffee in the trash can outside the diner doors before entering. It had been a week since Alex last visited the diner; she had been away to visit her parents in Baton Rouge the previous week. Happy to see her young friend’s return, Norma, the owner, greeted her loyal patron with a friendly wink as she made her way to the kitchen to put in the next order. 

Alex sat in her usual spot, a small table for two next to the large window in the corner of the diner. She didn’t choose the corner table to isolate herself…it’s the only table with access to an electrical receptacle.

Before Alex could even open a browser tab, an unfamiliar face walked through the door. It’s rare to see someone new come into the diner. He was an older gentleman with a full November beard and sadness on his brow. He didn’t take a seat but went straight to the restroom.

Alex felt pain emanating from his spirit and wanted to know his story. Noticing Alex’s visual concern for the stranger, Norma approached her table and settled into a squat to reach eye level with Alex.

“He’s your story for today,” Norma said to Alex quietly. “He’s been here every day since you left to visit ya’ folks. He orders two black coffees…sits in the corner, but no one comes to join ‘em. Saddest thing I’ve seen since I opened this place. Can’t get a word out of ‘em, but I know someone who can.”

booths in a diner - empathy
Photo by Lee Cartledge

At this point, Alex put her writing routine aside for the sake of human connection. She desired to give the man her attention and relate to his suffering without pushing her opinions and pulling him for answers. Her desire to listen to his story and replace her life’s lenses with his experiences points to the most overlooked quality of successful writers. Empathy.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”

– Anonymous

I wasn’t born with it.

I might be the ideal person to write a post on this subject. Not because I’m the most empathetic person in the world, but it’s because I have to work really hard at it. I sympathize with those who lack empathy. I understand how difficult it is to see life through a lens not my own.

Growing up with my father as his only child, I didn’t have to concern myself with sharing or being concerned about other people’s feelings. Maybe you can relate to my story.

Marriage and parenthood have given me a crash course on how to be more empathic. My tiny growth in this area day-by-day has helped my relationships. And yes, it has helped my writing too.

How to cultivate empathy.

You grow in empathy one relationship at a time. One conversation at a time.

Stop and think about how another person’s experiences brought them to where they are today. Consider the impact of nature and nurture in a person’s life.

Here are eight good ways to grow in empathy:

  1. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Trust, we love ourselves a lot, so this is a great place to start.
  2. Challenge yourself to listen more. We have two ears and one mouth.
  3. Get outside of your bubble. Go places where people look and talk differently than you.
  4. Learn to do without certain luxuries.
  5. Ask people close to you to give you an honest opinion on your listening skills and your relationship in general.
  6. Take note of your experiences, preferences, and biases that tempt you to pre-judge a person.
  7. Read more books and stories about people who exhibit genuine empathy.
  8. Learn to ask open-ended questions. This will give you more opportunities to listen to and learn more about other people.

You have a lot to gain by growing in empathy. It’s not a one-way benefit. Cultivating empathy will help you learn more, become more well-rounded, thrive in social situations, and write with more color and context. Just try to not completely lose yourself in someone else’s story. Your story is a gift!

Why empathy is important for writers.

Empathy is important for writers because it creates a good foundation for understanding how to communicate with your readers. It helps you make deeper connections with your readers and the characters in your stories.

Empathy is a crucial quality for fiction writers (which I’m not…yet) and biographers. The more that you can relate intimately with our characters’ or subject’s qualities, flaws, and experiences, the better that you can paint their experiences with more colorful detail. This ability will endear you to your readers.

Here are a few good ways to grow in and benefit from empathy as a writer:

  1. Develop your characters deeply before you start writing.
  2. Know, study, and survey your target audience (age, gender, language, ethnicity, interests, etc.)
  3. Be human. Be transparent. Be flexible. This will help you consume and tell stories in different ways.

My lack of empathy holds me back.

At times I want to reach deeper into the soul of a character, but my lack of empathy impedes me. This is why I’m primarily a non-fiction writer (for now). But, I’m confident that I will grow in empathy and improve my fiction writing skills over time.

God has given me everything that I need to grow in empathy – faith, family, and friends. I hope that you have everything that you need too.

Continue your journey on InspireFirst by reading my top 15 writing tips.

This post was proofread by Grammarly Premium.

Chris Craft

Follower of Jesus. Husband. Father. Founder of InspireFirst and Nao Media.