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A fundamental trait of good writing which I've often neglected is empathy, the encompasser of many good qualities of prose. Whether the King James Bible, (whose style I had long wished to imitate, though now I consider imitation thereof a futile, ungodly thing), adheres to empathy, I can make no confident assertion, as this is beyond my knowledge. But though I still wish to write in lyrical styles, varying in level of complexity, I desire to write with empathy, which, because it cares for the readers' mind, and also the readers' heart, is more likely to accomplish the ends of my writing, and will ensure that such ends are always good, whether they be main, secondary, or incidental.

So now my question is: "Is it possible to write in a very high and sophisticated style, not being pompous, but showing empathy, and how? And is poetic writing contrary to empathy? And what kind of styles are empathic, and what kind of styles are not?"

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    This question has me thoroughly confused. It might be useful to define what you mean by "sophisticated style" and "empathy" and why you think those are in conflict.
    – codeMonkey
    Commented Feb 21 at 20:54
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    My wild guess, based solely on the word choice and references in this question: You are writing something philosophical rather than fiction, and your beta readers have said that the style - meaning vocabulary and sentence structure - doesn't work for them, and possibly that they feel talked down to, and have therefore requested simpler writing and phrased it as "more empathy." -- If something like this is the case, I might re-phrase the question to be more direct about it. You'll probably get very different (and possibly more helpful!) answers.
    – codeMonkey
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:01
  • Can you cite any examples, or list three or four authors you admire, and another few you dislike, using that style? Commented Mar 2 at 23:10

2 Answers 2

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Empathy has nothing to do with style.

Empathy is the ability – and willingness – to recognize, comprehend and feel in yourself a kind of echo of the emotions, thoughts, motives and personality traits of another person. Empathy is thus a combination of a cognitive ability (theory of mind) and a physiological reaction (mirror neurons). Empathy is when you feel a pain-like tension and slight rush of adrenaline when you see a child falling and scraping his knees. Empathy is when the happiness of another person makes you smile involuntarily. And empathy is when you know that your actions make the other person unhappy, and why, and you are not happy about that, but for some important reason you do it nonetheless.

That is, first and foremost empathy is a combination of an ability (learned) and a trait (inborn) of the writer him- or herself. Can you empathise with other people, including your characters and your readers?

If you can, your task as a writer then is to express that understanding in your writing. How you do that will largely depend on the function of your narrator:

  • Your narrator can comment in a kind and benevolent way on the shortcomings of your characters.
  • The narrator can describe the inner complexity and ambivalence of the characters, including both the hero and the antagonist, instead of painting them in black and white (as either good or evil).
  • Your narrator, if he or she is a character in the story, can self-reflect and show understanding of him- or herself.
  • Your characters, including your narrator, can grow, that is, you as an author are empathetic and allow them to become better persons instead of punishing them for being who they are.
  • Understand your readers and don't put them through an ordeal (boredom, disappointment, cruelty), but make reading your story a balm on their soul.

You can do all this in any style and medium.

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  • I am fully aware of the meaning of empathy, and did not need the detailed explanation, except perhaps for the motives part. What I was asking was whether certain characteristics of style are in accord with empathy for the reader, and if certain ones are not.
    – garbia
    Commented Feb 17 at 20:52
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    @garbus I answered that in the first sentence of my answer. That you think that empathy has anything to do with writing style gives me the impression that you don't fully understand what empathy is, which is why I explained it. Empathy is something that happens inside your head. There is no relation between how empathetic you are and how you speak or in what style you write. If you feel my answer doesn't properly address your writing problem, maybe you'd like to explain? Why do you think that writing style has anything to do with empathy? In what way?
    – Ben
    Commented Feb 17 at 21:53
  • Well, you defined empathy as something like just feeling what the other person feels. I thought of it more as being concerned about how they feel or would feel. So ai guess my question doesn't make sense.
    – garbia
    Commented Feb 18 at 12:20
  • @garbus And you can express that concern in any writing style, as I laid out in my answer.
    – Ben
    Commented Feb 18 at 12:22
  • Garbus seems to me there are two definitions of empathy here. @Ben is focused on understanding from within ("I'd feel like that in their life".) You, I think, are focused on from without ("I understand how they could feel like that, and I wish to write in a way that understands them, in turn, they'll understand my point of view"). For example, a parent might take great care to think on on how their child feels. Understand and forgive the negatives. "A fundamental trait of good writing which I've often neglected is empathy," I think you are fallen into error here, and you yourself ... Commented Feb 20 at 22:29
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In my opinion, you should never try writing with a "high and sophisticated" style. Strive, instead, for clarity and simplicity. Trying to make yourself sound smarter has the opposite effect. It reeks of insecurity.

A good writer packs much meaning into few words. At its core, the point of language is to communicate an idea. It is a means, not the end. Like good design, your words should fade into the background, and the meaning should flow through them uninterrupted. If your readers have to stop and think to understand what you're trying to say (as I did with your post), you've failed as a writer.

If you ask me, this is the heart of empathy. It's like that story about a woman dining with presidential candidates, where one makes her think he is the smartest man on Earth, whereas the other makes her feel she is the smartest woman in the world. You want to be like the second man.

Entire books have been dedicated to this subject—far more than I could put into this answer, not to mention that I'm no expert—but the most vital aspect is evocation. We can more easily picture physical descriptions than abstract, so seek similes and metaphors and replace adjectives with verbs and adverbs with stronger verbs. The thesaurus is your friend.

Now, to circle back to your question, I've heard it said that writers should not force a style. It emerges naturally and, early on, careens to and fro based on the last book you read. Over time, it takes shape and stabilizes. I'm not experienced enough to confirm that, but I see no reason to doubt it.

That said, the best way to guide yourself toward a specific style is to consume that style. To that end, I'll point you at Schopenhauer. He is famous for his focus on clarity and his disdain of flowery prose yet old and pompous enough that his work is cloaked in that veil of sophistication you desire (or at least the English translation is). His essay, On Style, is a relevant starting point.

I'll also point you at Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. I can vouch for it. The book covers everything I said and more, and although I can't promise it will make whoever reads it a good writer, it will certainly make them a better one.

Read, practice, and the rest will come.

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  • I'm getting pissed off.
    – garbia
    Commented Feb 23 at 1:40
  • @garbia What about? Commented Feb 23 at 4:01
  • One thing: You're saying that people want to be treated as not intelligent enough to understand more advanced language.
    – garbia
    Commented Feb 23 at 22:12
  • @garbia I'm saying that language is a tool. Maybe some people enjoy words for their form instead of their content, and if that's the niche you're catering to, you know best. But most people care about the content, and if your "advanced" language gets in the way of that, you've failed. At the very least, form should not come at the cost of clarity. Commented Feb 24 at 7:54

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