The best thing?

That’s a big call because I don’t really believe in the whole ‘one thing’/ ‘secret sauce’/ ‘magic bullet’ approach to writing.

But I do believe in compassion. For those who write and those who read.

I haven’t always felt this way. As a journalist, I was set on other things like tenacity, accuracy and rigour. I certainly wouldn’t have rated compassion highly; I would have considered it weak and insipid.

It’s not something most people quote as a trait for good writing.

  • Curiosity – yes.
  • Consistency – that too.
  • Command of the language – essential.
  • Empathy, editing skills, ability to evoke emotion – all this and more.

They are all important. Anything that helps us get our ideas from brain to page is important.

But without compassion, we make it harder than it needs to be.

To be compassionate is to genuinely want to help people.

Compassion is the ability to understand and want to help others. The desire to help is what makes it different from empathy, which is also about relating to people but not about feeling motivated to help them. One study into the difference between the two showed that empathy was often debilitating whereas compassion produced a proactive response (Compassion is better than empathy).

It’s our job to turn the complex and confusing into simple and easy to remember.

Like in writing about money matters and the economy. People like Alan Kohler* (ABC News) or Scott Pape* (The Barefoot Investor) explain how and why things happen in the economy and what it means for us. They can see it’s complicated for most people – even though it may be blindingly obvious to them. (*Why couldn’t I think of women to name here?).

The best writers take a step back from their expertise and talk us through it from a beginner’s stance.

One news director I had would say, To assume is to make an ass of you and me.

He’s right.

Never assume our reader knows or understands our topic.

It’s better to assume that they know nothing. That way, if they genuinely don’t know or have forgotten what they knew, we make it easy for them.

And doing it compassionately helps them feel safe with us.

Two seals cuddling

To assume is one of the worst things we can do.

Annie* (you’re right, not her real name) almost lost me as an email subscriber because she titled her email, ‘I’m back’.

She assumed I remembered who she was, and how long it was since she’d sent an email newsletter.

I didn’t know who she was and I certainly didn’t know she’d been gone.

I almost unsubscribed. But something jogged my memory and I googled her business to find her service is one that I might use someday. So I stuck with her.

But she didn’t make it easy.

It would have been better to start with something I might have been interested in (her insights on a current hot topic?). Instead, it was what she was interested in – worrying that, ‘people will wonder where I’ve been’).

Having compassion for our audience means

  • Meeting people where they are (busy, distracted).
  • Looking for ways to help with our knowledge and insights.
  • Making it easier for them to understand and remember what we’re communicating.

When we’re writing, having compassion means having a clear purpose and message to communicate; it means returning to that message and ending with it. Or as journalists know,

Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em – tell ’em – then tell ’em what you told ’em.

It also means telling people what they can do next if they want more from you. That’s not selling – it’s just being polite.

There is another side to compassion that I didn’t have room to cover here – compassion for ourselves.

It’s just as important and that’s the topic of another blog post.

Until next time,