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Silence is a good thing. Embrace it; make it your friend. Learn to accept it and be comfortable with it.

Writing Advice: Why Listening Matters

I have been thinking lately about the importance of listening. The most important thing to do to be a good reporter, and an even better interviewer, is to listen.

I hesitated when titling this because, really, listening is key to much more than writing. I know people who drove me insane because they do not know how to listen. Next time you are having a conversation try to talk less and listen more. You may be amazed by what you hear – habits of theirs that you never noticed before or them sharing a story you have not heard before because this time you are not the one steering the conversation Try to move out of the driver’s seat of the conversation and into the passenger’s seat and just listen for a while.

This also holds true as a writer. You want to absorb everything around you and that is hard to do if you are talking all the time. Instead, just listen.

I recently wrote about Annie Dillard and how I loved her as a writer but was frustrated by her as a reader. She is good because she knows how to listen. More precisely, she witnesses well by which I mean she observes, she contemplated and she relates what she sees. As a writer that is incredibly important. Writers and reporters are not, contrary to what Judith Miller of the New York Times famous implied, stenographers. They listen and pass on what they have heard but they must also think.

But sometimes listening can backfire and that is when the person you are listening to doesn’t talk in a straight rational line. Sure they may understand how they went from point a to point b but if you, the listener, can’t understand how the conversation just jumped from terrorism to why you prefer tea over coffee then there is the potential for both the speaker and the listener to become frustrating.

Dillard had that effect on me, she would switch topics and I’d be left wanting to interject a question, just as I do when talking to someone who is jumping topics. But I can’t ask Dillard to explain things and so I’ll be frustrated.

So how does this help you as a writer? Let me provide an example. Let’s say you are covering a fire at night. These days there is often only one person authorized to speak to the media and if you are a journalist on a deadline you are stuck with a common dilemma – the editor wants the story as soon as possible but you can’t write anything yet because you don’t have anything official.

Do you sit there and stew? No, what you do is the same thing a police officer would do – you canvas the neighborhood. In this case the members of the neighborhood, especially the nosey ones, are probably already at the scene. Do you start asking lots of questions? No, you listen.

This situation with the fire occurring on deadline happened to me several times and during one of them I noticed several children who were very animated. I listened for a few minutes before asking why they were so happy when there was a fire going on. It struck me as an odd emotion.

They told me that they had recently attended Children’s Village. Children’s Village is a local program all students are required to attend where they are taught about fires and fire safety and, most important, what to do if there was a fire. I learned that these kids had noticed the fire and followed the right steps in making sure the fire department was notified and that others in the building were contacted. 

I knew immediately that I had my hook for the story. When I talked to the fire official later he gave me some boring facts but when I mentioned the kids he became animated about how proud they all were of them. The story made the front page and the kids were instant heroes. I would not have gotten that story if I had not listened.

People going into journalism often think they need to have a script and a set of questions for every story. I did that too once upon a time. But while it is good to have a list of topics or questions you want to make sure you don’t forget to ask what is most important is – all together now – to listen. Something you hear during the interview, or something someone does before the interview, can change everything. You need to be flexible, ready to change at a moment’s notice.

People going into journalism often think they need to have a script and a set of questions for every story. I did that too once upon a time. But while it is good to have a list of topics or questions you want to make sure you don’t forget to ask what is most important is – all together now – to listen. Something you hear during the interview, or something someone does before the interview, can change everything. You need to be flexible, ready to change at a moment’s notice.

As a writer you are used to focusing on your fingers for typing but what matters more is your ear, to listen for interviews, for ideas for stories, to remember ideas you hear for future stories. 

Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, talks about being tone-deaf as a singer, an affliction with which I can relate. But she talked to a sufi who told her singing is 90 percent listening and soon she was able to sing perfectly in tune. I’m not sure if I buy all that – I’m not going to try out for a barbershop quartet or boy band any time soon – but it’s her next observation that interested me more:

Writing, too, is 90 percent listening. You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you, and when you write, it pours out of you. If you can capture that reality around you, your writing needs nothing else. You don’t only listen to person speaking to you across the table, but simultaneously listen to the air, the chair, and the door. And go beyond the door….

Listening is receptivity. The deeper you can listen, the better you can write. You take in the way things are without judgment, and the next day you can write the truth about the way things are.

But, Scott, you say, I’m not a journalist. I’m a regular writer. Yes, but listening is still key. Writers, both of fact and fiction, use what they see and hear around them. If you are not paying attention it’d be like watching a television program with mute on – you can guess what is going on but why guess when you can hear too. We have multiple senses so who not use them?

I have saved my best tip for last: Using silence to your advantage. Up until now I have focused on how listening can help you collect information. But now I am going to shift the spotlight slightly to how listening can help you glean information, often the best bits, from others.

You know the saying, “silence is golden?” Normally I hate clichés but this one is so true. Many people are uncomfortable with silence, especially when it happens during a conversation. While this is frustrating to others it is “golden” to you as a writer, especially if you are interviewing someone. 

Next time you are talking to someone and there is an awkward pause let the silence fill the room. Whatever you do, don’t try to fill in the silences yourself. Instead, make the other person do that work.

Let’s say you are talking to someone about their father. They may finish their comments and you may ask a follow-up question and then there is a pause. The worst thing you can do then is to speak and fill that pause. Better that the other person feels the need to fill that pause with something. Odds are good that what that person says to fill that pause is something unplanned, often something better than anything that came before or after it. 

Silence is a good thing. Embrace it; make it your friend. Learn to accept it and be comfortable with it. If you are uncomfortable with it then that will hurt you as a writer because you will be constantly seeking, sometimes subconsciously, distractions.

Avoiding the distractions is not easy. I’ve found I write better away from home because I have too many distractions at home, be it the tv/stereo/Internet calling out to me or my bed asking to sleep with me or whatever. But right now I’m sitting at a Border’s café, which is closing so I need to wrap this up. I had not planned to write this but as this place neared closing it became silent and I thought, ‘What better time to write about silence than right now when I have silence?” 

And so I did. Let me close now, appropriately, with a few lines of silence.

Thanks. I hope these words have been helpful.

 

 

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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