The Emotionally Intelligent Writer

I’m a psychologist, so I like to believe there are a set of characteristics that can predict author success. Sure, like any subset of the population—and I’m going to define ‘successful authors’ as those who generate a full-time income from their writing—there’s always going to be diversity, surprises, and outliers. But like any good bell curve (that wavy line that most psychometric tools are based on), there are going to be some characteristics, some traits, that are predictive of the majority.

That’s what every author dreaming of success wants to tap into.

To be a writer who generates a decent income from your creations, you need to do two things. Firstly, you need to craft a story lots of readers will love. The most successful authors have woven together all the intricate pieces of a good story so well that millions of people pay to experience their literary offerings. Secondly, you need to get that book in front of enough readers for it to hit critical mass. Whether you’re trad, hybrid, or indie, marketing and promotion is a challenge every author will face.

Writing and marketing are two essential and interdependent skills you’ll need to reach successful author mecca.

So, could there be a cluster of traits that predict which author can reach those heights? I’m proposing that one such cluster is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to monitor your own emotions as well as the emotions of others, to distinguish between and label different emotions correctly, and to use emotional information to guide our thinking and behavior and influence that of others. Emotional Intelligence (EI) has been found to be correlated with better social relations, being perceived more positively by others, better academic achievement, and better psychological well-being.

Now, you’re probably wondering how this relates to writing, while at the same time, already seeing some links to your author life. Fascinating, huh? Let’s break down EI into its components, and explore them in terms of a successful author.

According to Daniel Goleman (one of the founding fathers of EI) there are five components of EI:

Self-Awareness

The ability to recognize and understand our own emotions is infinitely useful as a writer because emotion is a central part of any good book. Emotions are what drive your characters, and therefore your plot. How are you going to label, capture, and convey emotions on the page if you struggle do it in real life? What’s more, to be a writer in the long-term takes a particular mindset. Successful writers have passion and perseverance, and look after their psychological well-being. To do that, you need to be self-aware.

Self-Regulation

Anyone who has written beyond the first flush of excitement of an amazing-gotta-write-it-right-now story idea, knows that writing is hard. It’s takes a whole lot of time and a whole lot of perseverance. To keep creating, day after day, week after week, a successful author knows they need to regulate and manage their emotions. There are times when getting words out and onto the screen is like pulling teeth (the molars waaaay at the back), when vacuuming is more enticing (I’ve even cleaned toilets rather than write), and rejections and negative reviews are downright demoralizing. Those days, successful authors will demonstrate self-control, conscientiousness, and flexibility.

Motivation

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic—being motivated by external rewards, which in the land of writing would include riches, fame, and a spot on the Ellen Show; and intrinsic—motivation powered by personal reward, which looks a whole lot different. Writers high in intrinsic motivation are driven to return to their writing cave over and over because they gain personal satisfaction from the process of creating. The successful author? Well, they’re totally wanting to regularly milk the cash cow, but that’s not their only driving purpose. They wouldn’t dream of silencing the characters in their head because they’re driven to share and to give. The process of literary creation is a reward in itself.

Empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand how other people are feeling, and recognizing, on some deeper level, how you would feel in their shoes. You need to empathize with your characters, so you can capture the nuances that are part of any emotional experiences. Writers who do that convey rich and authentic experiences. They blur the line between reality and the story world for the reader. Empathy is also a great skill to have when we engage with readers and fellow writers…  

Social Skills

The final piece of the EI puzzle, social skills are possibly the component that seems least relevant to being a successful author. After all, we write alone, right? The truth is, every word we write has been influenced, motivated, or touched by another human being. The truth is our creativity is a product of community. And so is your writing success.

Social skills allow people to successfully navigate social situations. Successful writers, those high in EI, are great communicators (on and off the page), they can successfully negotiate and resolve conflicts, they build bonds and nurture instrumental relationships, and they collaborate and cooperate. Every successful author I’ve ever spoken to has talked of the connections and support they received from writers and non-writers. They often attribute their success to them.

The great news is that EI can be harnessed and developed. Consider any of the following strategies to improve your emotional intelligence:

  • Getting fluent in the “language of emotions,” or learning how to identify, differentiate between, and explore different-but-related emotions.
  • Observe how you react to others, making a concerted effort to put yourself in their place. Note how you can use this with your characters.
  • Examine how you react to stressful situations and work on staying calm, collected, and under control. Note when you’re motivated to stop writing, and why (and then keep writing).
  • Consider why your write. What are the extrinsic motivators, but what are the intrinsic motivators? The intrinsic motivators are the ones that will keep you writing over the long haul.
  • Notice how you engage with others. Does this help your writing career? How can you capture these social interactions on the page?

What do you think? Do you know any successful authors, and do you think they are high in emotional intelligence? I don’t suppose you’ve spent time with Stephen King or Nora Roberts, and wouldn’t mind passing on my details for a little study I’d like to perform…?

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also a USA Today best-selling author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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13 Responses to The Emotionally Intelligent Writer

  1. Beth Barany says:

    Hi Tamar, I appreciate you bringing to light the essential elements of emotional intelligence for writers. Since emotions are the core of our work as novelists, understanding them is key.

    I do disagree with your definition of success, though. Specifically “I’m going to define ‘successful authors’ as those who generate a full-time income from their writing…”

    Before a writer can earn money from their work, they first have to be a beginner (and intermediate) writer.

    All the work that goes into writing pre-publication, and even while selling only a few books, needs to be appreciated, if a writer wants to build on it.

    I see each step of the way of building into a lucrative author career, a success.

    Success isn’t only that mountain peak of generating full-time income. By that definition, I am not a success, nor is most of the writers I know. That is a goal; but success is showing up to do the daily work to get to that mountain peak.

    Thanks!

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hi Beth,
      I agree, success is different for everyone, and can just as much be a verb as a noun. Those authors who demonstrate the passion and perseverance to keep writing are winners every day.
      Which means success can be reached over and over when we write – whether it’s hitting our daily writing goal, writing when you really, really don’t fee like it, or whether it’s earning a full-time income from your words.
      It’s a truly an individual and diverse concept, and the beauty is that we all get to define our own ‘success’.
      Thanks for your perspective,
      Tamar

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  4. I’ll admit when I saw this article, I thought “Here it comes; dull and boring” but that wasn’t the case at all. Great insights and great for authors to get some perspective on ourselves. Certainly wasn’t boring!
    Patti

  5. Cathryn Cade says:

    Tamar,

    Great article. As writers, we definitely need to know our strengths and weaknesses, or the trials and tribs of a writing career will sink us.

    This is the best job in the world, but it’s difficult. There is a point in every book when it’s a sheer grind to keep going.

    And social media? Shyeah. Time for us introverts to stre-e-etch our bubble and let others in, while not spending too much time chasing cute puppy pics.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hi Cathryn,
      I totally agree. Writing is HARD! You need to realize where your comfort zones lie and be willing to extend them. Emotional intelligence helps us navigate that challenge.
      Happy writing,
      Tamar

  6. M. Lee Scott says:

    One of the best articles I’ve read on how our (the writer) emotions help us write better books. I think self-awareness is the ultimate key to our writing success. Putting your strategies to work every day until they become a habit will guarantee not only our greatest achievements but better our everyday living. Thanks so much for this awesome article, Tamar!

  7. Thank you for this fascinating post. I especially liked the insight into intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. We all may start with one or the other type of motivation, but it makes sense that to be truly successful, authors must have a healthy dose of both types.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hi Micki,
      Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is fascinating! It’s really useful to reflect on both in relation to our writing (it’s the intrinsic motivation that will keep you going through the tough times).
      Happy writing,
      Tamar

  8. It’s an interesting exercise; we so often search out the academic strengths that contribute to success, but not so much the emotional strengths. I can absolutely see how some of these components are going to lead people to success—in any career field, really. But it does apply to writing. Thanks, Tamar!

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