Learning to listen

There is little point being a professional writer if no one reads your work. As a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, I stress the need to be sensitive to the audience and communicate clearly. My pedagogic mantra has been brought into sharp focus during my latest book project. I was commissioned to ghost write the autobiography of a moderately famous artist. During the first few months, I met the subject and recorded our conversations. I then transcribed the material, moulded it into a coherent narrative and sent this draft version to the subject. Over the last few weeks, we have met several times. I have listened to his comments on the draft and nodded sympathetically while he explained why he would never have said what I said he said — or, at least, not in that particular way. My ultimate task is to create a readable book while enabling my subject to retain ownership of his own narrative, and this requires the ability to listen and respond sensitively.

There are parallels here with my Higher Education writing workshops. During these, too, I need to be sensitive to the participants’ needs. My students, unlike the subjects of many ghost-written autobiographies, tend to be very good listeners and eager to learn. Last term, I ran a workshop for student teachers undertaking a Masters programme at the Institute of Education on ‘Writing your thesis’. My remit was to help the students to communicate their own skills more effectively — not to teach them how to teach. As part of an introductory writing exercise, the students were amazed to discover how difficult it is to explain clearly and concisely how to make a cup of tea, and I continually referred back to this realisation during the rest of the workshop. The exercise made the students laugh out loud, and this good humour created a positive foundation for the following practical writing exercise in which the students had to describe the thrust of their thesis in one sentence. This simple activity vividly illustrates both the value of being sensitive to your audience and how, with well-chosen tools, you can help hone the communication skills that will attract and hold a reader.


17 August 2016