Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy in Books

I’ve written more than a few times about the role that emotion plays in books, even technical books. Technical books such as Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements are tough to write because they’re packed with emotion. The author not only must convey emotion and evoke emotions in the reader, but explore the emotion behind the writing. In this case, the author’s emotions may actually cause problems with the book content. The writing is tiring because the author experiences emotions in the creation of the text. The roller-coaster of emotions tends to take a toll. Three common emotions that authors experience in the writing of a book and that authors convey to the reader as part of communicating the content are apathy, sympathy, and empathy. These three emotions can play a significant role in the suitability of the book’s content in helping readers discover something new about the people they support, themselves, and even the author.

It’s a mistake to feel apathy toward any technical topic. Writers need to consider the ramifications of the content and how it affects both the reader and the people that the reader serve. For example, during the writing of both Python for Data Science for Dummies and Machine Learning for Dummies Luca and I discussed the potential issues that automation creates for the people who use it and those who are replaced by it in the job market. Considering how to approach automation in an ethical manner is essential to creating a positive view of the technology that helps people use it for good. Even though apathy is often associated with no emotion at all, people are emotional creatures and apathy often results in an arrogant or narcissistic attitude. Not caring about a topic isn’t an option.

I once worked with an amazing technical editor who told me more than a few times that people don’t want my sympathy. When you look at sympathy in the dictionary, the result of having sympathy toward someone would seem positive, but after more than a few exercises to demonstrate the effects of sympathy on stakeholders with special needs, I concluded that the technical editor was correct—no one wanted my sympathy. The reason is simple when you think about it. The connotation of sympathy is that you’re on the outside looking in and feel pity for the person struggling to complete a task. Sympathy makes the person who engages in it feel better, but does nothing for the intended recipient except make them feel worse. However, sympathy is still better than apathy because at least you have focused your attention on the person who benefits from the result of your writing efforts.

Empathy is often introduced as a synonym of sympathy, but the connotation and effects of empathy are far different from sympathy. When you feel empathy and convey that emotion in your writing, you are on the inside, with the person you’re writing for, looking out. Putting yourself in the position of the people you want to help is potentially the hardest thing you can do and certainly the most tiring. However, it also does the most good. Empathy helps you understand that someone with special needs isn’t looking for a handout and that they don’t want you to perform the task for them. They may, in fact, not feel as if they have a special need at all. It was the realization that using technology to create a level playing field so that the people I wanted to help could help themselves and feel empowered by their actions that opened new vistas for me. The experience has colored every book I’ve written since that time and my books all try to convey emotion in a manner that empowers, rather than saps, the strength the my reader and the people my reader serves.

Obviously, a good author has more than three emotions. In fact, the toolbox of emotions that an author carries are nearly limitless and its wise to employ them all as needed. However, these three emotions have a particular role to play and are often misunderstood by authors. Let me know your thoughts on these three emotions or about emotions in general at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Firefly Light

Firefly in the night,
growing dim, shining bright.

Sending messages, in insect code,
come and stay at my abode.

Flying here, flying there,
making art upon the air.

A beam of light, within the dark,
an ember glowing, like a spark.

Hypnotic visions, all aglow,
help me see your jagged flow.

Flights of fancy, are what I see,
as you continue, endlessly.

Until the dawn, grants you rest,
your endless dance, shows your quest.

Copyright 2016, John Paul Mueller

 

The Owl Said Who

In the middle of the night,
when animals play and fight,
the darkness reigned supreme,
and I heard an owl scream,
Who!

The owl didn’t give a hoot,
or like a crow let out a whoot,
it wasn’t the screech owl’s scream,
but simply, as in a dream,
who.

With the rising of a fog,
I heard the croaking of a frog,
reverberate throughout the wood,
and then the owl, because he could,
said whooo.

As the moon reduced the pall,
It’s glare created shadows tall,
I looked upon the ground below,
for the subject of the low,
when the owl said who?

There he sat upon the limb,
with eyes aglow and visage grim,
his feathers puffed as if to fly,
upon some prey from perch on high,
but all he said was who.

I left him to his thoughts so deep,
of prey afoot that would not keep,
and went to lie upon my bed,
to let sweet dreams fill my head,
and all he said was who!

Copyright 2016, John Paul Mueller

Supporting Creative People

I work really hard to support my readers and so do many other authors. In fact, most creative people are in creative trades because they like to communicate with others using a variety of methods. The simplest goal is to provide something of intangible value to others—be it a painting, sculpture, dance, music, or writing. It’s well known that creative people are often underpaid (hence the cliché, starving artist). Because the starving artist (and most of them truly are starving) makes little money, it’s important that people do support them whenever possible. That’s why the piracy of Intellectual Property (IP) is such a problem. I’ve written about this topic before from a writing perspective (see Piracy and the Reader), but IP theft has become a serious enough problem that we’re beginning to lose many good creative people simply because they no longer have enough money coming in to make a living.

The problem is that many people would support the creative people whose IP they use, but they don’t really understand that they need to pay for this material. For example, there are many sites online now that offer my books free of charge. Just viewing the site doesn’t provide a clue that anyone is stealing anything. These sites have a clean appearance and simply offer IP in the form of downloadable music, books, and so on. In fact, many of these sites are fully searchable. The reasons that someone would do something like this varies, but it pays to employ some critical thinking when you see something free that possibly looks a bit too good to be true. Many people download viruses, spyware, and other sorts of malware along with their free download. In the long run, it’s actually less expensive to buy the IP, than to have a computer compromised by some of the crud that comes with these free downloads.

For the record, my books are never free. You need to pay for your copy of my book in order to support the various things of value that I provide to you as a reader, including this free blog. It isn’t my goal to become rich—if that were my goal, I’d be in some other line of work (believe me when I say authors aren’t paid particularly well), but I do need to make enough to pay my expenses, just as you do. Even though I know many people do download my books free, I still support everyone that I can with good advice on how to get the most from the books I write. To me, coming in each day and working with all of you is one of the benefits of being an author. I truly do want people to use my books to get ahead in life. If you’d like to discuss the effects of piracy on you as a consumer of IP, please write me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Choosing to Use Graphics

Graphics can be a tricky issue in technical writing. Some authors use graphics at the drop of a hat. Often, the graphic shows something that the reader can readily understand from the text or contains nothing of value to the reader. For example, some books contain images of objects that don’t have any intrinsic value of themselves and possibly contain a little text that the author could easily include in the text. However, some authors err to the other extreme. Some abstract concepts lend themselves to pictorial representation. For example, a block diagram can often convey relationships that would be impossible to describe using text alone. Consequently, the issue of whether to use graphics within a text or not often hinges on the graphic’s ability to convey meaning that words alone can’t.

However, the decision to use graphics often involves more than simply conveying information. The quality of the graphic also matters. Graphics that appear too small in the book make it impossible for readers to make out details and render them useless. Designing a graphic that provides all the required details can be time consuming. However, including a less than useful graphic in the book is generally a waste of space. In some cases, the solution is to provide a reference to an external source (such as the Internet) for the graphic, rather than include the graphic directly in the book. Some authors have a strong desire not to use external sources because they tend to change, but using poorly designed graphics that fail to convey the desired information to most readers is equally problematic.

Focusing the graphic is also a problem. When a graphic contains too much detail or contains elements that have nothing to do with the discussion, the message can become lost. Using a cropped graphic helps focus attention and reduces the amount of space the graphic consumes in the book. By focusing reader attention on specific details, it also becomes easier to convey a specific message. Most important of all, keeping individual graphics small (yet easily readable) is essential to allowing use of as many graphics as is needed for the book as a whole.

The bottom line is that authors who use graphics effectively are able to communicate a great deal of information to readers in a modicum of space. In addition, using graphics presents the reader with another way to learn the material. Many people don’t learn well just by reading text, they also require graphics, hands on activities, exercises, and the like in order to learn a topic well. When choosing to use graphics, you must consider all aspects of how the graphic will appear to the reader. Let me know your thought on graphics usage at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Using Notes, Tips, and Warnings Effectively

Writing is all about emotion—I’ve mentioned this need quite a few times in the past. There are many ways to create emotion in technical writing. Of course, word choice, sentence structure, and other tools of the trade come into play, just as they do for every other form of writing. You can answer the six questions in a specific way or you can set material aside in a sidebar. However, one of the approaches that is truly different in technical writing is the use of notes, tips, and warnings. In all three cases, you create a single paragraph sidebar-like structure, but the emphasis and nuance of the inclusion is different from other sorts of writing:

  • Notes: Information that you want to include as an aside to the main text. You might choose to document the information source, the location of additional information, or augment parts of the main text in some way. The emotional impact of a note is the feeling of being special. When the reader sees a note, it should evoke a feeling that this is peculiar or extraordinary information that could impact the reader’s use of technology.
  • Tips: Information that is extra in nature. You might choose to include a personal technique that you haven’t seen documented anywhere else, the location of goodies that won’t necessarily affect the reader’s use of technology described in the book, but will add to the readers appreciation of that technology, or some sort of gift-like source, perhaps a free download. The emotional impact of a tip is one of surprise. When a reader sees a tip, it should evoke a sense of getting extra value from the book—something unexpected that adds value to the reading experience. A reader should get the tingly feeling that one gets when receiving an unexpected present.
  • Warnings: Information that is dire in nature. Reserve warnings for those times when a reader’s incorrect action could cause personal, data, or other sorts of damage. The emotional impact of the warning is dread. The reader should see a warning as a notification that incorrect actions are rewarded negatively—they’re the stick that goes with the carrot of notes and tips.

It’s important to remember that these three constructs aren’t the main event. Your body text is still the main event and these three elements serve only to emphasize that material in some way. Depending on the book you write, you may have other specialized paragraphs at your disposal. Each of these unique paragraph types should evoke a particular emotion. Unfortunately, the emotion they should evoke is seldom documented, so you need to figure it out for yourself. It’s essential that you do take the time to discover what emotion the paragraph is supposed to evoke (or simply not use the special paragraph in your writing).

Unlike sidebars, notes, tips, and warnings are rarely more than a paragraph long. You could possibly make an argument for two paragraphs in rare circumstances. The paragraph should contain two or three sentences with the first sentence providing a summary and the second providing details. A third sentence provides ancillary information as needed. The structure and content of your special paragraph should reflect the kind of paragraph you’re creating—as with a good actor, keep your paragraph in character. After all, it’s a performer on the stage of your book and presents the reader with a special feature that is unavailable elsewhere.

Using the special paragraphs at your disposal in the correct way can mean the difference between communicating effectively with your reader and losing the reader’s attention completely. Let me know your thoughts about the use of notes, tips, warnings, and other special paragraphs at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Developing Good Work Habits

Writing, like any kind of work, requires a certain amount of discipline. However, unlike many sorts of work, pounding away at the keyboard is only helpful when you have ideas to get onto paper (digital in most cases today, but the idea is the same as writing in the past). In order to become more productive, you must develop good work habits. Part of the task is to base your work habits on the kind of writing you do, your personality, and the requirement to get a certain amount of work done in a given time. It’s also important to consider your work environment.

I normally work a 12 to 14 hour work day, but I don’t spend all that time at the keyboard. My work day is split into one hour segments with 15 minute breaks. The day always begins with chores and breakfast for me. After all, everyone has to eat. During my first segment, I’ll answer e-mail, and then it’s usually time to take a break. I get some cleaning done or get the wood stove ready for the evening fire. The point is to get out of the office for 15 minutes so that I can rest, but also remain productive.

During the second segment I normally write as much text as I can. Sometimes this means pressing pretty hard in order to get the task done, but you need words on paper to move forward. Last week’s post mentioned some ways in which I get the job done. This segment usually goes by so fast that it seems as if I’m just starting when my timer goes off. Yes, I use a timer on my computer to keep a routine in place. Pacing yourself is important. At the end of the second segment it’s usually time to check the chickens and get any eggs they’ve laid. A walk outside is nice too. Sometimes I play Frisbee with the dogs or do some cleaning or even just enjoy some sunshine while I read the newspaper.

The third segment sees me editing the text I’ve written during the second segment and augmenting it. I usually end up with half again the number of pages that I had at the end of the second segment. The point is that the book has advanced, but that the text is also in better shape by the end of the third segment.

Depending on how everything has gone, I can sometimes fit in a fourth segment that I use to research new book material. I write ideas for the current chapter directly into the remaining blank spots so that I can start working on them immediately after lunch.

Lunch is an hour long. Afterward, I check on the animals again, check out the orchards and gardens as needed, and generally get things cleaned up. You’ll notice I do a lot of little cleaning segments during the day. For me, it’s better than trying to clean the entire house all in one fell swoop. Plus, I like a clean environment in which to work, some people actually do work better in clutter. There isn’t any right or wrong to the question of environment, just what works for you.

The rest of the day goes pretty much like the first part of the day went. I’ll have a robust writing segment after lunch, followed by an editing segment, followed by a research segment. It may seem mundane and potentially quite boring, but it’s an efficient way for me to work. Of course, you have to come up with your own routine—whatever seems to work for you. Keep trying different ways to approaching your writing until you come up with an approach that’s both efficient and rewarding. Yes, I’m quite tired by the end of the day, but I also feel quite happy with what I’ve gotten done. Let me know your ideas on writing workflow at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Facing the Blank Page

Most writers face writer’s block at some point. You have a blank page that’s waiting for you to fill it and you have a vague notion of what you want to say, but the text simply doesn’t come out right. So, you write, and write some more, and write still more, and hours later you still have a blank page. Yes, you’ve written many words during that time—all of them good words—just not the right words.

Every piece of writing I do starts with an outline. Even my articles start with an outline. Creating outlines help you focus your thoughts. More importantly, they help you to see how your thoughts will flow from one idea to the next. Sometimes, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you really don’t have anything more than a vague idea that will never become an article, white paper, book, or some other piece of writing. Of course, that’s really the reason for this exercise—to see if you have enough information to even begin writing. If you don’t have enough information, then you need to research your topic more. Research can take all sorts of forms that include everyone from reading other texts on the topic, to doing interviews, to playing. That’s right, even playing is an essential part of the writer’s toolbox, but this is a kind of practical play that has specific goals.

Once you do have an outline and you’re certain that the outline will work, you need to mark it up. My outlines often contain links to resources that I want to emphasize while I write (or at least use as sources of inspiration). A lot of writers take this approach because again, it helps focus your thoughts. However, an outline should also contain other kinds of information. For example, if a particular section is supposed to elicit a particular emotion, then make sure you document it. You should also include information from your proposal (book goals) and your reader profile (who will read a particular section) in the outline. Your marked up outline will help you understand just what it is that you really want to write. In reading your outline, you can start to see holes in the coverage, logic errors, and ideas that simply don’t fit.

Moving your outline entries to the blank page will help you start the writing process. Convert the entries to headings and subheadings. Ensure that the presentation of the headings and subheadings is consistent with the piece as a whole. Unfortunately, you can still end up with writer’s block. Yes, now you have some good words on the page, but no real content. An outline is simply a synopsis of your ideas in a formalized presentation after all.

Write the introduction and the summary to the piece next. The introduction is an advertisement designed to entice the reader into moving forward. However, it also acts as a starting point. The summary doesn’t just summarize the material in the piece—it provides the reader with direction on what to do next. People should view a good summary as a call to action. By creating the introduction and the summary, you create the starting and ending points for your piece—the content starts to become a matter of drawing a line between the two from a writing perspective.

At this point, you have enough material that you could possibly ask for help. Try reading your piece to someone else. Reading material aloud uses a different part of the brain than reading the same material silently. Discussing the material with someone else places a different emphasis on the material. The other party can sometimes provide good suggestions. You may not use the suggestions directly, but listening carefully can often present you with creative ideas that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

It’s important not to overwork the piece. Sometimes you need to do something else for a while. Yes, you always want to spend time in research and thinking your piece through, some writing is often done in the subconscious. Fill your head up with as many creative ideas, fascinating thoughts, and facts that you can, and then do something that actually will take your conscious mind off the topic. You might watch a television show or movie, go for a while. have coffee with a friend, take a nap, or do any of a number of other things. The important thing is to forget about the book for a while. Often, you’ll find that the now semi-blank page doesn’t present a problem when you return. Let me hear about your ideas for dealing with the blank page at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Discerning the Use of the Six Questions in Writing

In a previous post, Creating the Useful Sidebar, I discussed the need for emotion in any book, even technical books. It’s not possible to convey information in a manner that helps a reader understand the technology without including emotion. Facts alone are available in many places on the Internet—what a smart author wants to convey is the emotion behind the facts. Of course, this means adding bias in the form of your perspective on the topic.

Most people know the six questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Newspaper authors stress the questions, but anyone who writes technical (non-fiction) materials must consider them as well. They’re good questions. However, most treatise on the topic look at the questions from a factual perspective—what you need to do to answer them and why they’re important. In some respects, it’s better to look at the effect and orientation of the six questions, rather than their factual nature.

The four fact questions are: who, what, when, and where. If you answer these four questions in any piece you write, you have covered the facts. Your writing will likely be as dry and entertaining as the Sahara, but no one will be able to argue that you’ve covered the essentials—the bare minimum. The best authors aren’t happy with just the bare minimum.

The question of how is a slightly emotional question. It not only covers facts, but it also covers some of the emotion behind the facts because you’re presenting a view of the facts. In your (or possibly an expert’s) opinion, this is how the other facts fall into place. For example, a procedure on how to perform a task using a piece of software is your opinion on how to get the job done. Rarely is there a time when your method is the only available method. You discuss how based on your experience. Likewise, looking at the historical context of an event, the how often views the event from the viewpoint of the historian who researched the process, rather than providing a precise and infinitely detailed discussion. A historian could quite well leave out steps in order to streamline the process (to make it easier to understand) or to convey a specific view (in order to support bias).

When looking at the question of why, you enter the territory of pure emotion. It’s impossible to ascertain a factual why, no matter what sort of writing you do. Even addressing the why behind the reason to perform a particular task in a specific matter is based solely on the author’s opinion and is therefore ultimately biased. The why of a situation, any situation, tends to change with time. As an author gains knowledge (facts), experience (knowing how to apply the facts), and wisdom (knowing when to apply the facts) the question of why changes. In addition, memory, perspective, and all sorts of other environmental considerations affect the interplay of emotions that answer the question of why. In fact, you may encounter situations where even the entity that is the focus of why has no idea of why and you must create your own answer to the question.

Great writing revolves around the six questions. The first four are easy, the fifth is a bit harder, but to answer the sixth requires time, focus, and commitment. Let me know your thoughts about the six questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Perfect Love (Reposted)

Valentine’s Day is that special time to tell others that you love them. Most people associate Valentine’s Day with lovers—romantic love. However, Valentine’s Day can also be about friends telling each other that they’re glad to have each other. The world is a better place when we can express our love to each other, whether that love is for significant others, friends, neighbors, or the person down the street. Everyone needs to feel loved and respected. Even though it’s the day after the event, there is always time to express your love to someone and this is my expression of love to you, my reader.

Perfect love casts out my fear.
Keep your perfect love so near
that I never fear again.
Perfect love for you attain,
‘til my heart with love is filled
and my spirit never chilled.

All around the world I see,
how a perfect love could be,
an answer for mankind’s woes,
when hatred and evil flows,
fueled by fires of doubt and fear,
no one lets the other near.

Open eyes to perfect love,
gift of wonder from above.
A love that gives, never takes,
love that grants others mistakes,
that counts no loss and no gain,
that makes our hearts young again.

Copyright 2012, John Paul Mueller