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.”


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