Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy in Books

This is an update of a post that originally appeared on May 23, 2016.

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 and Machine Learning Security Principles 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 Artificial Intelligence for Dummies, 2nd Edition, Python for Data Science for Dummies, and Machine Learning for Dummies, 2nd Edition 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 disabilities, 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 who loses a job to automation isn’t looking for a new career, the old one worked just fine. The future doesn’t look bright at all to them. Likewise, some with disabilities isn’t looking for a handout and they don’t want you to perform the task for them. They may, in fact, not feel as if they have a disability 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 the first time I came to realize that empathy is the correct emotion to convey 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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].


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 [email protected].


Creating the Useful Sidebar

There are many styles of writing employed for technical writing. Each style has specific benefits and today’s blog post won’t delve into them. However, many of these styles rely on the sidebar to add interest to the writing.

A problem occurs when an author seeks to present only facts as part of any written piece. Readers can find facts on the Internet. What readers can’t easily find is the specific viewpoint that an author presents, which includes supplementary materials in the form of sidebars. A sidebar adds interest to the writing, but more importantly, it provides background material that augments the topic at hand. For example, when discussing smartphone hardware, a sidebar that provides a brief overview of the communication technologies employed by that hardware can prove useful to the reader. The radio frequency transmission isn’t part of the main topic and some would argue that discussing it doesn’t belong at all in a pure hardware discussion, but the addition of that supplementary material is essential to the piece as a whole. It helps present a particular view of the technology that the reader wouldn’t otherwise receive.

Sidebars shouldn’t become a main topic. A good sidebar is at least one long paragraph, but more commonly two or three paragraphs. Never allow a sidebar to consume more than a page of text. For example, a two or three paragraph overview of the history of a technology is useful—a discourse that spans multiple pages is overkill unless the author is trying to make a particular point (in which case, the discussion should appear in the topic proper).

Depending on the sidebar content, you can include bulleted lists and numbered steps. A sidebar should never include graphics unless the book style accommodates such an addition (which is rare). The idea is not to detract from the piece as a whole, but rather augment it in a specific way—to help direct the reader’s attention in a specific manner. Using visual styles and white space correctly help make the sidebar attractive.

Many authors forget the need to evoke an emotional response in any sort of writing, including technical writing. In making a point, the author needs to express the idea fully by making an emotional appeal. A sidebar can perform this task nicely without creating distractions in the overall writing flow. For example, a piece about implementing accessibility features in an application can include a sidebar that contains a case study about the effects of such an implementation on a specific person or within a real world environment. The point is to help the reader understand the implications of a technology and make its use imperative.

Sidebars are an essential tool in the creation of a usable piece of writing that helps a reader understand a topic in ways that many factual Internet pieces can’t. Using sidebars effectively makes your writing better and more appealing. More importantly, a sidebar presents a unique view that the reader identifies with you as an author and sets your style of writing apart from that of other authors. Let me know your thoughts about sidebars at [email protected].



The Art of Observation and Writing

People watching is a favorite activity of mine. No, I don’t sit at the bench at the mall and make snide remarks about people’s attire. I’m also not too interested in the exceptions to the rule—someone doing something so absurd that it falls well outside the range of normal human activity. (Although, I must admit that the guy who ended up in a fountain because he wasn’t looking as he was texting, was sort of funny.) No, I’m more interested in how normal people react in normal ways to normal situations. Observation is a key tool for any author because seeing how people act and react is an essential part of communicating thoughts and ideas to them. I can’t see my reader during the reading of one of my books, so observation helps inform me outside of that environment.

On one particular day, I was watching a young couple argue. The precise reason for the argument isn’t known to me and it’s immaterial anyway. The two of them argued for quite some time, each insisting the other wasn’t listening. Both went off in a huff. I’ve always hoped that they made up. The things that struck me was that the two people communicated differently. The wife’s communication was both vocal and emotional. However, it was her body language that said the most. The husband was stiff as a board and you could tell that he had built defenses against any encroaching information that might conflict with his preconceived ideas of how the communication should go. However, he did use his hands quite a lot and did make really good eye contact. His choice of words was the key ingredient in his communication. Two people, communicating two completely different ways, and neither of them hearing the other.

Books are like that sometimes. I get e-mail from my readers that makes it obvious that I didn’t choose the correct manner of communication. Yes, the information they’re requesting is most definitely in the book, but they didn’t see it because the information didn’t appear in a form that attracted attention. In some cases, the reader did see the information, but couldn’t understand it. In a worst case scenario, the reader saw the information, read it, thought it was understandable, and then didn’t apply it correctly. In many cases, I find that the reader really didn’t understand the information after all.

Another couple, on another day, showed me something else. Nuance is often part of communication. The precise formulation of interaction is important. In this case, the husband was following his wife shopping, but I could tell that his interest lay in his wife, not in what she was buying. She picked a particular item up, looked it over, and put it on the shelf. A little while later, they came back. She picked up the same item, looked at it intently, and then put it back on the self. I was surprised to see the man come back sometime later. He bought the item and almost passed me by while wearing a magnificent grin. When asked what was up, he explained that by observing his wife, he found the perfect gift for her—something she really wanted, but didn’t buy because it was too expensive.

The communication between author and reader is often nuanced in ways that defy simple explanations. Yet, when they’re understood, they seem absurdly simple. It’s the reason I employ beta readers, ask questions on this blog, and maintain statistics for my books. All of these observation techniques tell me how you’d like to receive information from me without my having to ask the question directly. I can provide you with the perfect presentation without saying anything at all.

How do you employ the art of observation? Do you find that it provides an effective means of communicating thoughts that might not receive proper treatment when spoken. Send your ideas on the topic to [email protected].


Are You Lying? Can I Tell?

I just read an interesting article, “What happens when your friend’s smartphone can tell that you’re lying?” The reason this article is so interesting is that it involves a kind of application development that I would never have thought possible at one time. That’s what is underneath the technology described in the article. The hardware provides sensors that provide input to application. The application uses the resulting data to determine whether the person in question is lying.

It’s an odd sort of thing to think of, but our society relies on lies to make things work. When someone asks how you feel, do you really think you can be brutally honest? Because lying has such negative connotations, most people would likely say that they’re honest all the time, but in fact, they aren’t. We habitually lie because it’s not only socially acceptable, but socially necessary to do so. Even if we feel terrible, most of us respond that we feel fine when asked how we feel. We know that the other person is simply trying to be nice and probably isn’t interested in how we feel. Asking how someone is doing or how they feel is an ice breaker—a means to start polite communication. The idea that smartphones can possibly detect these little lies will make people feel uncomfortable.

Our society is currently undergoing a massive change and most people aren’t even aware of just how significant the change really is. After all, the change lacks the protests, marching, and other indicators that previous changes have incurred. However, of all the changes I’ve read about, this change is possibly the most significant. We’re now monitoring every aspect of human behavior in ways that our ancestors couldn’t even conceive. Soon, we’ll have the capability of monitoring emotion. The idea that we can literally look into another person’s head and accurately see what they’re thinking and feeling is terrifying in the extreme. At some point we’ll have no privacy of any sort if things continue as they are now. We’ll become Borg-like creatures of the sort described in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I’ve discussed privacy issues before. In An Unreasonable Expectation of Privacy, I pointed out that humans have never had complete privacy unless they became hermits (and even then, someone probably knew our whereabouts). I’ve also tried to help you counter some of today’s intrusions with posts such as Exercising Personal Privacy. Taking yourself off the grid, ensuring you maintain good privacy techniques online, and so on do help, but this latest article tells me that it may eventually become an issue of not being able to be private, even if you really want privacy. If someone can flash their smartphone at you and determine things like what you’re thinking and how you feel, the act of being private becomes impossible.

We’re on the cusp of a major change that we won’t be able to counteract. Humankind is plunging headlong into a new world where communication takes place more or less instantly and conveys more than just words. It’s going to be interesting to see what sorts of new social rules that we put into place to help with the loss of privacy. For now, users and developers alike need to consider how best to maintain privacy and allow for those times when privacy is no longer possible.

Where do you feel privacy is going? How do you think you’ll react as more and more applications are able to not only accept your input, but also sense your feelings and detect whether you’re engaging in behaviors such as lying? Do developers need to put safeguards in place to keep security issues under control? Let me know your thoughts about the future privacy implications of applications at [email protected].