Listening’s influence on writing

When we talk about communication, we are talking about four basic channels:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

Did you see a pattern in the color scheme here? The blue channels are receptive, and the red channels are productive. Listening and writing share the least in common, since listening is receptive and does not require literacy. Listening occurs in context with many additional cues, whereas writing must supply its own context.*

Yet my message here — for any lawyer or law student who wants to be a better legal writer, as well as legal writing professors — is that working on listening can contribute to stronger writing.

Listening at the outset

The social aspect of legal writing means listening is crucial. Whenever an writing assignment or project is delegated through spoken words, listening sets the stage for successful writing. In professional contexts such as law practice, “successful writing” may be defined in large part as whether the writing satisfies the expectations of the person giving the assignment. Effectively listening to that person as he or she gives the assignment is therefore an important aspect of effectively writing it.

Listen Like a Lawyer previously suggested a checklist for taking an assignment, itemizing the obvious points one needs to get out of such conversations as well as some of the more intuitive information to listen for. While listening at this stage doesn’t guarantee success, it’s hard to imagine how one could successfully complete the project without effectively listening first.

Listening to feedback

On the other end of the process — but still fundamentally social — another link between good listening and good writing is handling feedback. Effectively listening to feedback and incorporating it into future work is crucial for a writer’s growth and development. The legal writing scholarship offers a number of insights into how professors should give feedback to 1Ls and what challenges they are likely to face. These recommendations help students listen to what their professors/writing mentors have to say.

In law practice, however, attorneys most likely *are not* well trained to give writing feedback, either in writing or in person. Anyone ever receive back an entire page x-ed out and annotated with the lone word “awkward” or — my personal favorite — “revise”?

But maybe unskilled feedback is actually not the problem. The real key to feedback lies in the person receiving it, according to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. These are the same folks who wrote Difficult Conversations, so you know they are onto something. Their book outlines the importance of feedback in every aspect of life and the most important reactive barriers to learning from feedback — namely reactions to the perceived truth of the feedback; reactions based on the relationship with the person giving the feedback, and reactions due to a threatened personal identity. (I am halfway through this book and have concluded EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT. Expect a longer blog post to follow about listening to feedback.)

“Listening” while writing?

While it’s pretty easy to see how listening contributes to the assignment and the feedback, what about the middle — the actual writing itself?  This part of writing isn’t so social. There’s no one to listen to.

Or maybe there is. Communications scholar Sara Lundsteen and others have suggested that part of good writing means having a good dialogue with oneself while creating. Being able to articulate what you’re writing about and why is part of a healthy writing process, writes Lundsteen in Listening: Its Impact at all Levels on Reading and Other Language Arts (1979). And being able to “hear” your own writing and revise it as needed are aspects of a healthy writing process as well. Here’s one amazing writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, recommending that writers just listen to their own writing and notice how it sounds.

In contrast, stressing out about how much the professor or supervising lawyer is going to hate this piece of writing is not an effective “voice” to listen to when trying to write. Models of writing such as Betty Flowers’ “madman-architect-carpenter-judge” (widely promoted among lawyers by Bryan Garner) help writers hold the critical voice at bay, opening their thoughts to more constructive internal dialogue. Methods such as Professor Mary Beth Beazley’s concept of “private memos” (footnotes with the writer’s questions and notes) help manage a writer’s internal dialogue as well. Preserving one’s personal voice while learning the conventions of legal writing is the concern of scholars such as Andrea McCardle.

As the idea of internal dialogue demonstrates, “listening” is surprisingly difficult to define and inextricably intertwined with thinking. Here in the middle of the writing process, thinking as embodied and expressed in various ways — listening to your own internal voice, hearing the sound of your writing, reading your draft, speaking the words out loud, and writing some more — is what will make better writers and better writing.


*For support and a more in-depth discussion, writing professors should check out Irene Lurkis Clark’s article on LIstening and Writing.

I look forward to presenting about listening and writing at the upcoming 16th Biennial Conference of the Legal Writing Institute. Co-presenter Professor Tami Lefko will discuss listening, professionalism, and law school pedagogy.

Listenability and readability

The essential difficulty with writing is “the curse of knowledge,” as Lisa Cron describes in her excellent book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. The writer is cursed with the knowledge of what he or she is trying to say — knowledge that the reader by definition does not share. This curse manifests in at least two ways:

On the one hand, the writer is so familiar with his subject that he glosses over things the reader is utterly clueless about. On the other, it’s way too easy for the writer to get caught up in the minutiae of how things “really work” and lose sight of the story itself.

Cron then takes a bit of a cheap shot, although maybe it’s deserved:

This is something that, for some reason, lawyers seem particularly prone to.

(Digression: Forgive this one moment. Cron’s book is great, and particularly great for any law student or lawyer interested in storytelling.)

Composition scholars and legal writing scholars have been talking about this “curse of knowledge” in different words for a long time. In this post I’m drawing in particular on an article by Irene Lurkis Clark, Listening and Writing, 3 J. Basic Writing 81 (1981), available at Professor Lurkis Clark did some interesting work with listening and writing that helps explain why and how listening can help build better writing.

A different way to describe the writer’s curse of knowledge is the problem of “writer-based prose,” a term coined by famous communications scholar Linda Flowers. Writer-based prose is bad because it assumes the reader already knows what the writer is trying to say. This kind of prose is an “‘unretouched and under processed version’ of the writer’s own thought.” Students must learn to produce “reader-based prose,” which entails a “deliberate attempt” to reach the reader using “shared language and context.”

Beginning legal writers face the double challenge of learning to use legal concepts and language with precision *and* writing about those concepts for a reader. The reader for our purposes is not just any reader, but a legal reader. Extensive legal writing scholarship explores these challenges and how to address them. A few key methods include reading excellent writingfollowing structured self-editing processes, reflecting on the writing process and written product, and  obtaining/implementing meaningful feedback from peers, professors, supervising lawyers, and others.

Effective listening can help with effective writing too.

This is in part because language skills are integrated. Some scholars claim they are completely integrated (good reader = good writer = good listener = good speaker). Others take a more nuanced position, seeking to explore and define the boundaries between listening, reading, speaking, and writing. The extent of integration need not be resolved for listening to help a lawyer or law student wanting to write more effectively.

For example, reading your work out loud is something we are all told to do. Professor Lurkis Clark explored the composition theory behind this recommendation — namely that “listenability” and “readability” are closely related. Early work in listenability actually used readability scores to measure listenability, a method that has been questioned and refined since then.

Based on the connections between listenability and readability, Professor Lurkis Clark proposed that students listen to each other’s writing and share structured feedback. The idea is that beginning (non-legal) writers can build their reading comprehension skills and gain a stronger sense of audience. If students’ listening is stronger than their reading (which can be the case with unskilled writers), then critiques based on listening may be more advanced than those based on reading.

Lurkis Clark didn’t claim peer review by listening was a novel idea, but she sought to explore why it works and what it’s best suited to do. In this work and a subsequent experimental study of how evaluators scored text depending on whether they listened to it or read it, Professor Lurkis Clark concluded — not surprisingly — that listening is best for critiquing structure, content and audience appropriateness. She found a high correlation between scores assigned to a text by listeners and those assigned by readers of that same text. Taken in sum, her work validates the role of listening in what is, ideally, a virtuous spiral of developing communication skills:

One’s ability to listen . . . can enhance one’s ability to read, which, in turn, can enhance one’s ability to revise, which, finally, has significant implications for the production of coherent discourse.


Better writing through listening

This post begins a series on listening and writing.

Being a better listener can help with being a better writer. There are broad, non-law-specific reasons this is true, supported in the general communications literature. And there are law-specific reasons as well.

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From the general literature: Listening is the foundation for speaking, which is the foundation for reading, which is the foundation for writing, writes Sara Lundsteen in Listening: Its Impact at All Levels on Reading and the Other Language Arts (1979). The initially crucial role of listening in this developmental process leads Lundsteen to posit: “Since listening is a foundation for writing, improving listening is likely to affect composition.”

Listening plays a role in writing skills in both an outward-facing and inward-facing way:

  • Listening in childhood builds vocabulary and the ability to generate complex sentences.
  • “Internal listening” is part of the writing process. Lundsteen gives the example of children talking to themselves when writing: “Let’s see, I’m going to write about a dog that ate a mean man.”

Problems with either type of listening could compromise the ability to generate strong writing. And strengths in these areas seem likely to correlate with strong writing.

The application to legal writing is pretty obvious. If a (legal) writer has a strong vocabulary and ability to generate complex sentences, that person’s (legal) writing is likely to be more advanced. Likewise, if a (legal) writer is able to engage a meaningful internal dialogue about writing (“now I’m going to address the other element”), the writing is likely to be stronger. While reading helps with all of the above — of course — reading alone seems insufficient. Listening to words in context and using those words in conversation with others, listening to how words are arranged in spoken sentences, and listening to one’s own ideas about what is worth communicating and how to make that happen — all of these forms of listening can enrich one’s writing.

The claim that better listening leads to better writing is difficult to prove, Lundsteen acknowledges. Several causes could make writing improvement difficult to discern: “complexity, the slow pace of such growth, and the imprecision in measurement of language arts skills.”

Yet this claim has an intuitive appeal, as she points out: “Not all problems [with language] are solved by using effective listening and reading, but it is doubtful that many are solved without help from these subskills.”


Why I Write

Flickr/Omar Wazir
Flickr/Omar Wazir

Listen Like a Lawyer received an early birthday present: an invitation from Brian Rogers, a.k.a. the Contracts Guy, to participate in this blog hop on “why I write.” The end of Listen Like a Lawyer’s first year is the perfect time for reflection. One obvious benefit of blogging has been the chance to network with folks like Brian as well as those tagged at the end of this post for the next leg of the blog hop.

What am I working on?

I’m interested how listening can improve the work product and experience of lawyers, legal professionals, and law students. There is so much to say about it: models of listening from the communication scholarship; listening and ethics; the role of listening in various areas of practice; how listening helps marketing and networking; common listening breakdowns; specific aspects of listening as a skill; listening in the law school classroom; and so on.

Right now I’m focusing particularly on listening and summer associates, since it’s that time of year. Next I will be delving into the relationship between listening and writing, in preparation for the Legal Writing Institute’s biennial meeting in Philadelphia this summer.

How does my writing differ from others of its genre?

I aspire to the kind of writing that informs and entertains lawyers and other legal professionals as well as law students. This blog is only a year old and I’m still working on writing style and frequency of posting. Where my writing differs is in its specific focus on listening.

Listening plays a big role in professional success as a lawyer, yet the value and methods of listening don’t seem to get much attention in books, articles, and online content — at least when compared with the attention given to speaking and writing. Some excellent law review articles have been written about listening, and my friend Professor Tami Lefko is now writing about listening as well. Through researching the blog I have found some wonderful resources, many of which are listed in the Resources section of Listen Like a Lawyer. I’m also grateful for the guest speakers and writers (here and here) who have already contributed their thoughts. Lawyers’ enthusiastic response when they hear about Listen Like a Lawyer tells me that there is an appetite and a need for more.

Why do I write what I write?

My main goal and the biggest reason I write is a substantive one: to explore the topic of listening. From my experience as a journalist and practicing lawyer, I remember many professional successes based on part of good listening:

  • taking extensive notes on an interview, adaptable for sharing with others, with key phrases in quotations
  • observing witnesses’ revealing facial expressions and body language during depositions
  • participating in mediations and motions practice where the key to success was to “quit while you’re ahead”

And of course less successful moments where I could have listened better:

  • not picking up on what made a client angry about his situation and then ham-handedly repeating the trigger
  • interrupting a partner during lunch with a client
  • not differentiating when senior attorneys were loosely brainstorming versus when they were identifying their core strategies and priorities

I could also remember the satisfaction of working with senior attorneys who engaged with conversation with me as a junior attorney — as well as the frustration of meetings with certain senior attorneys during which their eyes would wander towards Microsoft Outlook. Was I talking too long or about the wrong things? Did they have urgent client business necessitating absolute e-mail vigilance? Or were they just addicted to their e-mail? Yes, yes, and yes. These questions are even more valid, and these tensions even more present, in today’s device-laden legal workplace.

Since leaving practice and over the past 13 years teaching legal writing, it has become apparent to me that part of students’ performance in law school is affected by their underlying skill at listening. Better listeners understand more information, catch its context, prioritize it better, and ask better questions. They also “read people” better and understand speakers’ attitudes toward their own statements with more subtlety. Thus they are more prepared for clinics, externships, and law practice.

In contrast, truly bad listeners — and most people aren’t this terrible, but here’s a worst-case scenario — don’t get all the information they need, don’t understand people’s reactions to events, don’t ask good questions, and come across as ineffectual or even rude.

And those are just the outward aspects of listening. There is also the inward aspect of effectively listening to oneself, which is closely related to emotional intelligence. Being able to hear — and manage — one’s inner voice is so important to lawyers and law students’ resilience and professional satisfaction.

On a selfish note, I write because I like to. Writing teachers think about writing so very much but often struggle for time to do their own writing. Starting a blog was a public commitment to write, kind of like signing up for a gym membership — and then posting about it on social media — as motivation to work out. So far it has been a good experience.

How does my process work?

I keep a file of ideas in Evernote, drawn from Twitter, Zite, and other sources. I have a large stack of textbooks, trade books, scholarship, and other sources that I refer to for questions and explore as time allows. I tend to write groups of several posts at a time, saving drafts and then coming back later to revise before publication.

Some posts draw more on my journalism background, like these profiles of lawyers dealing with hearing loss. Other posts are more scholarly in nature, like this exploration of cognitive bias. And sometimes I just try to be creative, like this “Tabata workout” for listening.

Please check out my blogging friends:

For the next leg of this blog hop, I’m highlighting three blogs, all by lawyers:

Lady (Legal) Writer is written by Megan Boyd, an adjunct professor of advanced legal writing at Mercer Law. Megan is smart and funny, and has fun with legal writing. Her blog shows it.

Dogs Don’t Eat Pizza is written by Karen Cooper, a lawyer and fantastic writer who is channeling her passion into the Do It Yourself community. Karen can choose a great paint chip just as easily as she chooses between “IRAC,” “TREAC,” and “CREAC.”

Connecticut Employment Lawyer is written by Daniel Schwartz. I don’t know a lot about Connecticut law, but I do know something about good writing. Exhibit A is anything Dan Schwartz writes. Twitter’s suggested follows led me to his blog, and his work impressed me so much that I asked him to for advice on some early posts from Listen Like a Lawyer. He took the time to read them and make suggestions — proving he’s a nice guy, too.








Checklists for listening

The checklist is a surprisingly simple yet effective tool for improving performance in fields from aviation to construction to medicine to law. Checklists help professionals catch what Dr. Atul Gawande, the chief evangelist of checklists in the workplace, calls “the stupid stuff.”

Flickr/AJ Cann
Flickr/AJ Cann

Checklists also assist with collaborative work on large, complex projects. Complex challenges may not have a right answer, but project-management-style checklists help teams communicate and collaborate efficiently to handle uncertainty and forge a path forward.

I’ve written about how checklists help legal writers (here and here and here). Professor Kathleen Elliot Vinson of Suffolk Law developed an iPhone app with legal writing checklists (reviewed by Bob Ambrogi here). Checklists can help lawyers and law students listen more effectively as well.

For example, a listening checklist should be very useful for face-to-face meetings to discuss a new assignment. During a face-to-face meeting, forgetting to talk about a key topic would fall under Gawande’s definition of “stupid stuff.” Running down the checklist at the end of a meeting can help ensure key topics are covered. This process minimizes inefficient interruptions and follow-ups later. It also maximizes the value of the initial face-to-face time. Click here for a sample checklist for summer associates and legal interns.

Listening checklists could also be useful for client intake meetings, prep sessions such as deposition or mediation prep, feedback on assignments, and so on. Checklists for lawyering tasks are not a novel idea, which raises the question: is a “listening checklist” really that different from a regular checklist of relevant tasks?

Just as a pilot has numerous checklists in the flight manual for a variety of scenarios, a lawyer may have a listening checklist for handling meetings and a different kind of checklist for preparing an SEC filing, for example. The categorical name of the checklist doesn’t matter, buGawande’s great work on checklists, The Checklist Manifesto, teaches that a long, cumbersome, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink checklist is not a particularly good one. Any clear checklist that encourages efficient, effective communication is a valuable checklist for lawyers.

Thanks to Professor Tami Lefko for feedback on this post.