Language is alive. The written word does not sit inert on the page, black symbols on a white background. It reverberates with the intangible of the human experience—suffering, love, pain, self-seeking, self-sacrifice, indifference, generosity— and also concretizes human experience. Literature rises above the anecdotal to meld the intangible with the concrete. How the writer manages this fusion points to what I call substance.

Substance is not a theme, but it may be the support that structures a theme. It is my experience that this support—the substance of the piece—is compassion. For example, I wrote an essay that discloses the narrator’s extreme apprehension about going to the “celebration of life” of the dead son of a friend. The narrator of the piece describes events and actions that reveal her acute anxiety. But underlying these details is the writer’s compassionate awareness of the narrator’s suffering. The writer walks with the narrator without trying to change what the narrator is experiencing, without making fun of the narrator or any other character. Even if a character’s actions appear ludicrous, the writer never editorializes, never judges, but always remains the compassionate, detached witness who understands the frail humanity of the characters on the page.

This is what I mean by substance.

When I read my own work and that of others, I ask myself: Does the writer have compassion for the character on the page? Does the writer know the character’s life history, background, biography? Does the writer understand how the character has arrived at the point where the story begins? Has the writer somehow entered into the character’s struggle? With the personal “I” narrator: Does the writer portray the narrator’s struggle with an understanding of the narrator’s weaknesses, fears, or defects without trying to control the outcome of what’s happening?

Substance is not writing about compassion; it is writing with compassion so that the reader feels the writer’s authenticity.

Stepping into the minds and hearts and lives of those I encounter is how I learn compassion. A part of a writer’s calling is to notice others and to be the one who strives to understand the human condition. My written explorations can be conducted by my imagination or via observation, but they must be directed toward empathy and eschew ridicule, mockery, and scorn.

Another view of substance is to consider the things you care about, which I call points of reference. For example, one of Wendell Berry’s points of reference is reverence for creation. His compassion for the earth and all who depend on the earth’s bounty gives his writing authenticity. It is the substance of his writing.

Try this exercise as you discern what gives authenticity to your own writing: Sit in a quiet place, eyes opened or closed, pencil and paper by your side. Clear your mind of its busy-ness. Feel your heart space—calm, deep, full of wisdom. Ask yourself: What do I care about? Let the answers arise in their own time and way. Write down the things, concepts, or people that surface in the stillness. Choose one and take ten minutes to write about it.

What you care about is your point of reference, the place where your compassionate nature can grow and flourish. With practice, this point of reference—this “something” that you care so deeply about—becomes the substance that gives authority to your voice via your written words.

All writers make language choices and shape words according to their preferences, style, artistry, and inspiration. Combine your unique voice with substance to make your words a living, dynamic presence on the page.

Mary Ann McSweeny is an educator and instructional designer. Her work has appeared in The MacGuffin, Months to Years, So It Goes literary journal, The Baltimore Review, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, and Highlights for Children. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.