Some things you’ve written at work won’t have been easy writes. They’ll have been for a difficult audience, or will have carried a tough message or a subtle point. Some you’ll have started with too much information to condense, and you’ll have struggled with structure and flow.
But you did write in the end, you got something out for the audience. And I have a question for you about that.
Was there a point when you were writing when the words flowed a bit easier? When things you felt and thought flowed into your writing, not just prepackaged groups of words but something more honest and direct, like speaking to someone in the room?
If you did get into a flow like that, did it feel at all like listening? Like when you’re hearing something interesting, and for a brief while you lose the sense of yourself?
To me, writing does feel a bit like listening, when it’s going well. Not exactly like listening, because I’m producing words at the same time. Yet I’m not switching attention between a person speaking in my head and another person who’s typing. It’s like the kind of listening where you’re absorbed in the present moment.
Nor is it the simple model of thinking then writing; of carefully constructing words in your head first, and then transcribing them. No, the thinking and writing sort of happen in parallel. Like a good one-to-one conversation where there’s no need for conscious “listening techniques” because the communication flows.
I notice this flow happens more often when I have a pen or pencil in my hand. But also sometimes on a computer, at least when I’m not distracted.
When you’re in the writing flow like this, it’s almost like the act of writing is doing the thinking for you. Like your fingers are figuring things out. And your fingers are no idiots. What you tend to write in this state is something useful in meaning, that doesn’t sound awkward in style.
For sure, your writing needs a bit of polishing afterwards, sometimes re-thinking too. Sometimes a lot of re-thinking. But much easier to rethink or polish when you’ve started well by writing through “listening”.
Peter Elbow talks about an inner voice in his “Closing My Eyes as I Speak”. He talks about mature writing being in a desert island kind of mode, where you’re talking to yourself (he sees many parallels between speaking and writing). For example, teachers can help students:
… to turn off audience awareness and write in the desert island mode — to turn off the babble of outside voices in the head and listen better to quiet inner voices.
(The way Elbow suggest that teachers help, is by being a kind of “private audience” to student writers – a nurturing and encouraging audience, perhaps temporarily replacing the more distracting real or imagined audiences who often hold up writers — see my “Say ‘so what’ to your audience”.)
I wonder why I haven’t seen much from other writing teachers about the listening aspect of the writing process. (Maybe just because I wasn’t properly listening as I read?)
I looked for “listening” in another go-to writing guide, Henneke Duistermaat’s bewitchingly good blog “Enchanting Marketing”. I did find this snippet:
Until illness forced me to slow down a few years ago, I wasn’t listening to my inner voice. I was too busy to tick off items on my to-do list, to keep up with my peers, and to climb the career ladder. Slowing down made me realize how carefully I have to listen to hear my inner voice, to know what hunches to follow.
— Henneke Duistermaat, “No Inspiration? Here’s How I Rekindled My Creativity (and Felt Excited to Write Again)”
This sounds like a different kind of listening; a sense of relying on hunches to make decisions, of which I thoroughly approve (being a Gary Klein fan), but perhaps isn’t the same as listening in the process of actually writing. Still, Duistermaat calls attention to one of the other big distractions from an inner voice, the pervasive sense of busyness that can drown out good ideas.
We certainly need to create space if we’re going to do this kind of writing. And if we do think we’re too busy, we might gain inspiration from the examples of Bezos and Gates, who consciously booked time for thinking and writing. (I think it’s possible to be inspired by a certain aspect of someone’s life without having to approve of other aspects, and my only point here is that very busy people can sometimes still create space to think and write.)
Having created space, how does one then get into the flow? Freewriting helps me. Spending ten or fifteen minutes just writing whatever comes into my head, either based on the topic at hand, or if words still aren’t coming, just writing whatever I’m actually thinking about – other work stuff coming up, or my dinner, or the feeling in my hand. Sometimes, after a few minutes of getting that general stuff out on a page, I come back to the subject naturally and then words will flow quite well. If not then, maybe later, after a break.
Beyond that, if writing is listening, does it mean that people who listen well will also be able to write more fluidly and deeply? I don’t know — perhaps you know of some research? I’d be interested to hear about it.
Would that mean that consciously developing better listening skills — perhaps taking a course or reading a book — would help our writing? Maybe, I guess. But not necessarily. Because one of the other things I’ve noticed is that when I try too hard at any of this, it doesn’t work that well.
To force myself into better listening skills might help for a bit, but sounds like hard work to keep up. There’s a natural ease to flowing writing that doesn’t feel like something one can necessarily turn on at will. Courses and books might help, but so might just sitting quietly before writing.
For that reason as well, I don’t want to over-conceptualize this idea for myself. Writing is a bit like listening, but does that mean there’s literally an inner voice going on, something I might be able to measure with electrodes on my brain? I kind of don’t want to know — when it works, it works, and perhaps simply by me noticing it, it’s more likely to happen again.
The other thing that helps me is of course to write often. I give myself space to write for work, and it helps me guide my team and keep others informed. I also give myself a little time between work and family commitments to write this blog. The blog helps me with the other areas of life too, bringing some fresh ideas to work and even family. I’m helping my older daughter with creative writing these days — in the short term for an exam, but I hope it will help her in the longer term.
I don’t want to give advice here. It might not work for you. And anyway, as writing advice, it sounds a bit clichéd — “give yourself space, try freewriting, and write often”.
Rather, this is a reflection on something I noticed, that writing feels a bit like listening, and if I’m aware of it as listening, it helps me write better.
Does writing also feel like listening to you? Let me know in a comment. (To comment, you’ll need to sign up if you haven’t already, for example if someone forwarded this post to you in an email, or if you’re looking at it on the web.)