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.

Tools don’t make the writer

Twice last week I read blogs and forum discussions involving writers judging other writers by what tools they use.

According to a blogger who writes fiction, you aren’t a real writer if you don’t carry a moleskin notebook and fancy pen with you everywhere. And according to a professional writer in a forum discussion, you aren’t a real technical writer if you use, and especially if you prefer, the most commonly used word processing program rather than the program currently favored by the DOD.

I have carried a moleskin notebook in my past and remember how richly appealing they are to hold and scribble thoughts in. But my notes and writing fragments are just as valuable captured electronically using Evernote on my smart phone. That frees me from lugging around a bag big enough for a moleskin and continually fishing in it for my favorite pen.

I have used several different programs to develop manuals, procedures and instructions, and I enjoy learning new ones whenever possible. But I find that each has its pros and cons and believe that the perfect technical writing software has yet to be designed. I therefore prefer the tool requested or required by the employer or client because that is the tool that enables me to get the job done.

It is beyond my expertise to explain why some writers develop a tool obsession, or why so many humans in general feel they have to put others down to build themselves up. But both are a waste of time and talent.

Writers are writers because of the content they produce, not the tool they use to capture, display or distribute it.

Go forth and write something worth reading.