Writing Tips: How to Develop Empathy in Your Memoir

Empathy Sign

You probably want people who read your memoir to root for you. Even if the main topic of your memoir does not address something like overcoming hardship, facing tragedy or triumphing over opposition, you most likely want to encourage empathy for yourself. Unless you’re unusually self-critical, telling your story from your point of view will naturally point readers in that direction.

But there also are writing devices you can use. Here are three.

1. Writing Tone: Be Intimate, Raw, Honest, Humble, Authentic

Eliciting empathy from readers is really no different from trying to make new friends. Why do people want to spend time with someone?

You earn empathy from readers not only by the story you tell but also by the way you tell it. Write intimately, as if you’re sitting with just one person and “spilling your guts” to a degree.

Like new friends, readers like nice people. Show your heart! If your journey takes you from being not very nice to becoming a much better person, start your memoir at a more recent period and then jump backwards. That way you’ll let readers know that sticking with your story will pay off, because eventually they’ll like you.

Readers sense authenticity; if they feel phoniness, they’ll doubt your story. If they think you’re outright lying at all? You’re toast.

If readers hear arrogance in your writer’s voice, they’ll turn against you. If you blame others or just bad luck for what you’ve done, they’ll abandon you. Readers will be turned off by a flippant attitude that treats your sins as if they’re less significant than the sins of others. So take accountability for mistakes you’ve made and your own contribution to your troubles.

Expressing true contrition and raw honesty will keep readers on your side. Your tone must demonstrate that you don’t think you’re always right or better than other people.

Writing at the average reader’s level is a good way to get them to relate to your storytelling. If you write down to them, that condescending attitude will probably not sit well with readers. At the other end, writing in highly scholarly language can be tough to slog through and also indicate that you’re not easily relatable to ordinary people.

2. Writing Content: Give Evidence for Empathy

Be careful if your memoir positions you against the world, because the world might just win in your readers’ minds. To encourage empathy, show empathy. Roll out incidents that demonstrate how you empathized with other people.

Include, as well, episodes that show people empathizing with you. Give some play to other people who agreed with you, friends who had your back, relatives who came to the rescue. Explain your reasons behind your actions. Include any “aha” moments you had so that readers can take that ride along with you.

3. Writing Quality: No Sloppiness

Smart readers like smart writing—your memoir must be well-written. Readers do not have to be English professors to spot typos, bad grammar, repetition, hard-to-follow narratives and other errors that indicate poor writing. Even just unsophisticated writing can undermine a good story, because readers might not be able to follow your thoughts.

While you don’t have to be a professional writer, you should have a professional editor look over your work. Little things like paragraph transitions make a big difference in keeping the story flowing and the reader turning pages.

If your writing is poor, readers may feel sorry for you—but sympathy is not empathy. You don’t want readers to pity you; you want them to respect you for the way you handled tough situations and your good times, too. Ultimately, you want readers to enjoy your book—through your challenges, your decisions and your survival. Put them right by your side, and they’ll get it.