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Writers Talk About Writing

Why the Best Writers Have the Most Emotional Intelligence

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 powerful 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 over 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 better 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 in the work. 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, they have the smarts to take any big job (like an 80,000 word book) and whittle it down into more reasonably 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.

Emotional Intelligence might sound like one of those woo-woo, New Age theories that bears nothing more than a passing glance. In fact, it is a scientifically proven phenomenon that has huge implications for all of us. Especially writers.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.