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.

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