The Key to Empathetic Writing

It’s morning, and you’re sitting at your keyboard just like you do every other day of the week. What makes today different from all other days? Today, your brain has decided not to show up.

Writer’s block is like a dense fog that settles over your brain. It doesn’t completely cover the horizon — you can just make out the shapes of the buildings in the distance — but it does obscure the path ahead. The fog surrounds you, taunts you, dares you to try to move in a straight line. 

You decide to rely on your memory instead of your eyes. You’ve been here before, you know how to write, you do this every day. Just take a step, type a word, surely a decent sentence will follow. But the fog is suffocating. Every word leaves you gasping for breath. You delete the words you typed, and you try again. You stumble forward through the fog, but you start to realize you’re turning in circles.

The worst part about writer’s block isn’t so much the unfocused vision, it’s not even the feeling of tripping over yourself with every move you make. The worst part is the self-abuse the experience creates. You know how to do this, you might tell yourself. Why are you acting like it’s so hard? Why, when you’re doing everything the same way you’ve always done it, is nothing working? A swimmer doesn’t jump into the pool and sink because they suddenly forget how to do a backstroke, so why the hell can’t you just do the thing you do every day?

It’s painful. It’s frustrating. And it can make you feel as though you’ll never get your groove back again. It’s easy on a day of writer’s block to believe that this is your life now, and the only way to be convinced otherwise is to have a new day in which the words finally come.

A Pain Point With Which We Can All Empathize 

Why am I talking about writer’s block when the title of this essay is clearly something different? Because you’re a writer. I mean, I can assume you’re a writer if you’re coming to my website, which is about writing. So, maybe you’re not a writer — but if not, I’m not sure why you’re here. 

When we set out to write about a topic, we have no choice but to make certain assumptions about our readers. These assumptions are mostly formed by the platform the work will be presented on. Readers of Lifehacker, for example, can be assumed to be motivated to learn and do something. Readers of People Magazine can be assumed to be looking for entertainment, and to have a natural interest in celebrities and popular culture.

In order to better serve the reader, we make assumptions about what they know and what they’re interested in, and then we meet them where they are. That way, we can get to the specifics of what they need or want to know. Some websites try to write in a more encyclopedic, assume-people-know-nothing kind of way, but I’d argue those are less effective. Sure, they’ll give people a basic overview of a topic, but great writing — writing that moves people to think, feel, or do — gets to the heart of the matter.

So, because you’re here, I can assume you’re a writer. I have also never met a writer who hasn’t had moments of writer’s block (even if they call it something else). Therefore, in my goal to illustrate a pain point, I chose the one that I can be pretty confident in believing you’ve endured before. The goal? To show how effective it can be to begin where it hurts before taking the reader to a solution for their pain or frustration.

How to Identify Pain Points

The key to writing empathetically is to begin with the likely emotional state of the reader before jumping into the logical solution. There is not a topic in this world that doesn’t somehow impact the reader’s emotions — and starting there draws them in and helps them feel understood. Therefore, it makes them more likely to trust you enough to consider the solutions you propose.

Before you put words on the page, ask yourself what the person who needs to know the information you’ll provide struggles with on an emotional level. What are their pain points?

When you start there, you can serve the reader on a much deeper level. Instead of just answering their questions, you can speak to their fears or anxieties, help validate that their struggles are about more than just the topic at hand, and help them work towards understanding the root of the problem.

What’s more, you don’t run the risk of accidentally judging them.

I’ve been writing about personal finance for years, and I’ve seen many well-meaning writers create content that inadvertently blames the readers for their money issues. (I’ve also seen less well-meaning writers do this directly.) But that doesn’t help anyone — and there’s no room for blame in good writing. If you want to communicate an idea, express the complexity of the idea instead of boiling it down to “the ten reasons x never works” or “the x thing you’re doing to stand in your own way.”

Even if you’ve never encountered the issue you’re writing about, you’ve almost certainly experienced the underlying emotion the topic brings up for your reader. Consider those emotions, think about how they might affect the actions of the reader in the context of your topic, and then write with that in mind. When you do, you’ll be much more likely to approach the topic in a fair and balanced way and to actually help them understand how to move forward. 

Empathetic Writing is Harder — But It’s Worth It

The version of the essay you’re reading is the third one I’ve written. The fog of writer’s block settled quite comfortably over my mind each time I tried to write this. This isn’t even an edited version of the previous drafts — I wrote and deleted entire essays on this topic over a matter of several weeks before I finally got to this one.

What finally got me over the hump was to take the very advice I was going to give in the essay. If I was going to talk about empathy and pain points, wouldn’t it make sense for me to start there? My previous versions were okay, they would have sufficed, but this is the one in which I practiced what I preached. And you know what? It was hard.

Writing empathetically is always hard. It’s infinitely easier to spit out an introduction that lightly describes a problem and then transitions into the “ways” to fix the problem. That kind of writing services a topic, but it doesn’t necessarily drive a reader to action — and it certainly doesn’t show the reader that you understand them. 

As easy as it would be to spout out listicles and general advice, it’s important to remember if you’re hoping to connect with your readers that you need to show yourself. It will take longer. It will require some vulnerability on your part. But if your goals are to create a strong relationship with your readers and to have them follow your work for years to come, then the work will be worth it.

Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash