Successful authors exhibit a great deal of empathy for their readers. When an author writes with empathy–from the reader’s perspective–readers feel that the book was “written for me!”
This empathy can generate decades of reader loyalty; loyalty that may be far out of proportion to the value of the information contained in the book. (I still receive e-mails from Looking Good in Print readers who credit my book for their first job in graphic design.)
Authors whose writing exhibits reader empathy often benefit from decades of reader loyalty.
Building blocks of reader empathy
Successful authors write books for their intended readers, rather than writing the books they want to read themselves.
Empathy is the result of planning and research. Success is proportional to the author’s ability to “get inside their reader’s heads” to identify the information that readers urgently need.
Today’s successful nonfiction authors recognize that readers are busy; they’re not reading for pleasure, and they’re not buying frivolously. Rather than writing books to showcase their knowledge, they understand where their readers are coming from, and they provide the focused information their readers need to solve a problem or achieve a goal.
The success of the “…for Dummies” series is testament to the power of reader empathy. The “…for Dummies” books originated at a time when publishers were coming out with increasingly complex–and expensive–books aimed at computer power users and experts.
The “…for Dummies” contained “everything anybody might ever need to know” detailed and arcane information about the popular software programs, while neglecting the “real world” of employees and business owners who were not computer literate.
Empathy leads to focus: when you know what your reader’s are looking for, you serve your reader best when you provide just the desired information, organized and presented at the appropriate level of detail.
Proof of the strength of the empathy-driven “…for Dummies” brand is that the book series now includes over 1,400 titles, which have sold over 150 million books!
Empathy also influences the style of successful authors; readers can sense when a book has been “written for someone just like me.”
When an author writes with empathy, readers experience the warmth of receiving a personal communication from the author. Looking back to my favorite books, the ones that have influenced me the most, their common style characteristics are:
- Enthusiasm. Writers with empathy tend to be enthusiastic, even passionate, about their topic. They understand their topic’s relevance to the reader, and they write with a feeling of momentum because they are anxious to share what they’ve learned with the reader. While educating their reader, they’re having fun sharing the magic of discovery.
- Specificity. Writers who have empathy avoid generalizations. They use examples, case studies, profiles, and quotations to add concreteness to information. This specificity is often communicated using story, to enhance their message.
- Engagement. Empathetic authors don’t just provide information; they go a step further and provide exercises, questions, and other tools to help readers apply the information to their specific situation.
- Personality. Authors who have empathy for their readers are not afraid to take off their “masks of expertise” and share their enthusiasms, experiences, and prejudices, with their readers. A well-written book makes readers feel that they have known the authors for years and have shared their experiences.
- Shared journeys. Rather than feel like they’re being “taught,” authors who write with empathy make readers feel they are sharing journeys of mutual discovery with the author. This, of course, is what really happens when an expert writes about their area of expertise, as William Zinsser has documented in his Writing to Learn.
Finally, authors who write with empathy avoid value judgments or condescension. They don’t look down on their readers–especially newcomers to their area of knowledge. These authors scrupulously avoid jargon and complexity.
When introducing new ideas or terms, they define them and explain their importance to the reader’s understanding of the topic, or of the reader’s journey to solve a problem or achieve a goal.
Finally, authors with empathy tend to be accessible to their readers. they are genuinely interested in their reader’s comments and experiences. They respond to reader mail and e-mail; they are courteous when approached at conferences and workshops, and invite feedback.
This accessibility, or receptivity to reader communications, is evidence that authors with empathy are in it for the long haul: they are interested in cultivating long-term relationships with their readers.
Examples of “high empathy” books
The following are just a few of my favorite “high empathy” books, the books that most influenced me and continue to inspire me decades after I originally encountered them.
- Editing by Design, by Jan V. White. Editing by Design continues to amaze me. Reading it is very much like talking to Jan White, or attending one of his seminars. You not only get the feeling that he’s in the room with you, but that he knows what you already know, and what you need to know. One of my goals when I wrote Looking Good in Print was to emulate the “immediacy” of the author/reader connection created by this book.
- What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard N. Bolles. This was the other book that played a pivotal role in my wanting to write. Like Editing by Design, I felt the author knew me better than I knew myself. He had tremendous empathy for individuals who were suffering the daily indignation of a job that was paying the bills but holding them back. He shared the indignations and contradictions of the job hunt. When I discovered Parachute, I felt better just reading the book. More importantly, when I met and interviewed Richard Bolles, there were no surprises: his writing style, his in-person style, and his interview style are the same.
With over 10 million books in print over a 30-year span of time, Parachute’s success speaks for itself.
More important, what are your favorite books…the ones that have inspired you the most?
The comments area, below, is for your use; use it to share your comments about author empathy and your favorite reading experiences!
Roger C. Parker is a “32 Million Dollar Author,” book coach, and online writing resource. His 38 books have sold 1.9 million copies in 35 languages around the world. The NY Times called his Looking Good in Print “…the one to buy when you’re buying only one!” Roger has interviewed hundreds of successfully branded authors and shares what he’s learned at Published & Profitable and in his daily writing tips blog.