Why do the best writers have the most emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence“Aha, I’ve proven them wrong. My one true friend — my computer — says I have high EI!”

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

You’ve probably heard the term “emotional intelligence” lots of times. Did you know it was something that could help writers do their work better?

I read the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence — also known as EI — by Daniel Goleman, in 1996 when my kids were two years old. My husband and I used to enjoy debating which of our children had the most EI. We thought the answer was patently obvious but I won’t give it here, just in case any of my kids are reading.

Studies have shown that people with high EI — meaning: the ability to identify, understand and assess their own and others’ emotions — have greater mental health, increased happiness and more compelling leadership skills.

But here’s the thing that might interest you. People who have more emotional intelligence are also better writers. I’ve been struck by this recently because of the writers I’ve come to know through my Get It Done group. To put it succinctly: Most of them ace the five components of emotional intelligence as identified by Daniel Goleman.

Note that this is quite different from the whole idea of talent, which is a natural aptitude for writing. Here are the more useful attributes that emotionally intelligent writers display:

They are fantastically (yet modestly) self-aware

Successful writers are not cocky. Instead, they have a realistic understanding of their own self-worth. They know what they’re good at — whether it’s coming up with shockingly apt metaphors or finessing seamless transitions. But they also know what they need to improve. And, more than likely, they have a plan for developing that skill. Bonus: They usually have a self-deprecating sense of humour.

They have the ability to self-regulate

Parts of writing are acutely uncomfortable. They know this and while not exactly joyful about it they accept the inevitable difference between the wonderful story in their minds and the horribleness of their crappy first draft. Bad as today’s work may be, they know that tomorrow’s output will be entirely different. Worse, perhaps. Better — if they’re lucky. But they have the emotional maturity to simply show up every day and put in their words. The writing/publishing industry has changed enormously in the last 10 years. People who have mastered their emotions are able to roll with these sorts of changes.

They are highly motivated

Writers with emotional intelligence have a strong desire to achieve and, above all, a certain knowledge that they will eventually finish. More than that, they’re willing to put the work in. They’re the people who start writing at 6 am (or earlier!) or 11 pm (or later!) so they can log their daily writing time when no one else is awake to bother them. They’re in it for the long haul. They don’t need instant gratification.

They show great empathy

Writers with emotional intelligence understand what makes other people tick and hold great respect for them. Their ability to put themselves in the shoes of others makes them exquisitely sensitive to the needs of their readers. They don’t focus so much on what they want to write. Instead, they try to figure out what their audience wants to read. They would rather eat dirt than bore their readers.

They have superior social skills

Their ability to manage others also allows them to manage themselves. Most writers — even successful ones — have the same nasty internal editor operating at the back of their brains — the voice saying “this is no good; you’re a crummy writer.” But people with high EI do a better job of managing that voice than most. With patience and good humour, they tell it to get lost. “Don’t talk to me now,” they say. “I’m too busy writing. Come back with your ideas when I’m ready to edit.” As natural leaders themselves they have the smarts to take any big job (like an 80,000-word book) and cut it down into more reasonable sized pieces (i.e.: 219 words a day for a year.)

According to Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is born largely in the “neurotransmitters of the brain’s limbic system, which governs feelings, impulses, and drives.” Research shows that the limbic system learns best through motivation, extended practice, and feedback. Most training programs instead focus on the neocortex, the part of the brain that grasps concepts and logic. (I like to call this the “editing” part of the brain.)

If you want to improve your emotional intelligence you’re far more likely to succeed through focused coaching rather than by reading about it. That said, if you do want to check out two books you might find helpful, I suggest Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath and Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves. Both of the books come with a “code” that will allow you to do an internet-based test, gauging your strengths and weaknesses.

How’s your own emotional intelligence? And what’s it done for your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.  Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

*This post is an updated version of a column that first appeared on my site on Aug. 25/15.

Posted January 23rd, 2018 in Power Writing

  • S. Alberty

    I seem to have “known” my whole life why certain people are more comfortable, or just plain better, at writing than others. Emotional intelligence sums up a lot of the aspects that I feel so-called “natural writers” have. What it really underlines for me is my belief that the art of storytelling–oral and written–is a skill that requires a person to have a great amount of empathy, or they’re just not believable.

    • And I believe there’s some scientific evidence about the connection between empathy and story telling. Will try to find that and write about it soon.

  • Lily154

    I agree. Good writers enjoy a certain amount of solitude and introspection. Instead of “going through the motions” each day, they take time to process and understand the way they and others react. And wonder why that is so and how things could have been different. This commitment to an inner life that’s in touch with emotions is essential for any writer.

    • I agree that a “commitment to an inner life that’s in touch with emotions is essential for any writer.” I really like the way you put that!

  • Yomi Obindele

    Great Insight!

  • Kelsey

    I appreciated reading this article. This is because I have been aware of my own emotions for almost five years. Of course, this allows me to perceive the emotions of others. For my writing, I now have the ability to create emotional awareness in characters which gives them greater depth. It is not appropriate to do this for every character but for some it is a good idea.

  • Andrea Soldat

    I have devoured Daniel’s book and I applaude for attributing these skills to the best writers

  • Cong Nguyen

    It’s absolutely true. Good article!

  • Michael F. Tevlin

    I agree with most of what you said. I did struggle with your conclusion that, due to empathy, writers “… don’t focus so much on what they want to write. Instead, they try to figure out what their audience wants to read.” I do both marketing and fiction writing. In my marketing writing, I definitely look at what people want to read. However, in my fiction, my mindset is on staying true to my character’s story. From the beginning, I have believed that my story will be marketable. Thus, you could say I imagined it would have an audience. However, in the actual writing, I’m no longer worried about pleasing anyone. I’m more concerned about telling the story. I have always felt that, whether you’re writing a song, painting a picture or writing a book, you do what you love and what’s true to you, and hope that what your create will find an audience.

    • You make an interesting point, Michael. I was speaking primarily about non-fiction writers. But fiction writers with empathy better understand what motivates their own characters. Just as you describe!

      • Michael F. Tevlin

        Thanks for your kind reply, Daphne. Here’s something else to think about: Perhaps writing actually HELPS MAKE writers more empathetic. I believe this is true for me. I find that the more I write fiction, the more I’m aware of what’s happening in the moment, both the big things and the little, unsaid things.

        • I know research shows that fiction READERS become more empathetic. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the same thing happens to writers, too.

  • Rana

    I enjoyed reading your article and learnt a new approach of writing that we are writing for readers so it should keep the interest of the readers. Thanks for giving useful tips for writing.

  • Mike Semeraro

    Thanks, Daphne. Good stuff. To me, I have found EI to be extremely important in business. And not in the written sense that you write about. EI is so much about awareness of a situation. For instance, I practice active listening to a customer’s preferences(when customer-facing) and always try to put myself in the shoes of the other person. This enables me to pick up the subtleties in body language and really hear the message beneath the words being spoken. Although I do not consider myself a top-rated writer, I also would submit that folks who work in business development, sales, and strategy possess a certain level of EI, which is crucial to success. Your blog is challenging me to think about EI differently. Thank you.

    • You make a really good point about the value of EI to sales, Mike. So many people think that being a good salesperson is about being a good “talker.” In fact, as you describe, it’s far more about being a good LISTENER! (And being a good listener is also an important skill for writers.)

  • I also read the book Emotional Intelligence by Goleman and loved it. (I also loved its predecessor “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences” by Howard Gardner.) After reading these and other books on empathy and EI, I developed my own definition of empathy: “To really understand what and why a person thinks and feels the way(s) that they do.”

    This has helped me in my writing in that I realize that I need to help the reader understand what and why my characters think and feel rather than just tell them. While my words and expressions and metaphors can create a feeling (Sympathy), I neet to use the narrative arc to develop the understanding (Empathy) which then creates the resonance between the reader and characters for their actions (Compassion).

    • Yes, I liked Gardner’s book, too. You have a helpful and very succinct way of explaining your view of characterization, David. Thanks for sharing.

    • KSW

      Thank you for sharing. This was very thoughtful.

  • KSW

    I write scientific papers; yet, I write to have my patient outcome data read by other readers in an empathic way. “patient’s experienced” versus “patient’s reported” for instance. This can be seen as risking objectivity in nonfiction/academic writing. Thank you for this very interesting post, DGG.

    • I think the risk is only in academic writing. Most nonfiction readers prefer more empathetic writing, in my experience.

  • Patricia

    Thank you, Daphne, for this reassurance. I was feeling discouraged because my writing seemed to turn out … well … crappy. I felt the talent just wasn’t there.
    Then I read this post about emotional intelligence, and thought “Perhaps I can write okay after all, it just needs some good editing and polishing.” Now to find all your posts on editing!

    • Ah, Patricia — talent is so unimportant to writing. Some of the most successful writers have so little talent. (I put Stephen King into that category. This is not to slight him! He’s a hard worker and very determined.)