Listen Up

In my former life as a writing instructor and coach there was a homework assignment that I gave students to help them create more authentic dialogue scenes. Students were required to spend 15 minutes in a public place such as the local college campus, mall, or park, and listen for snippets of conversations from people passing by them.

At this point someone in the class would start snickering because we’ve all done this. We’ve all caught parts of conversations and repeated them later to family or friends or played them over in our minds wondering what came before and after what we’d heard.

Writing students easily guessed the second part of the assignment. Fiction writers were supposed to create a story around the dialogue they overheard. Creative Nonfiction writers and Journalists were supposed to present what they heard in its actual context, setting the scene for the reader and often adding commentary on its meaning and relevance.

But writing what we imagine or surmise is not the purpose of the exercise. Listening is.

Listening is a critical skill for writing well.

This is not only true for fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and journalists, but also for business and technical writers. After writing dozens of procedures, instructions, manuals, or training presentations, technical writers can make the common mistake of thinking that they are the expert and that the client or committee of co-workers should be doing the listening as the professional writer explains what they need. Instead, the professional writer’s first task is to listen to what the client or committee is saying.

Only by listening can the writer be certain of what to write, how to write it, and who they are writing it for. Only by listening can the writer discover what questions to ask to fine tune the request. The knowledge gathered by listening and asking is essential for producing the content that the reader needs and wants.

Listen first. Ask questions later. Write only when you’re sure of what you know.