There is a universe in which everything that can be written already has. Every research paper, journal article, blog post, and novel. Every letter to a dear friend. Every short story. Every graduate school application. This universe lives next to our own, so close you can almost touch it. You can’t, but if you listen closely enough you can hear it. And so becoming a great writer is the act of learning how to listen. Kurt Vonnegut was very good at listening, most of us are not.
You see, every written piece has a perfect form, a structure and narrative and word choice that says what needs to be said in the best possible manner. What is “best?” Usually the structure is simple and straight forward, unless, as is sometimes the case, it is layered and complex. The language is well-known, unless, as happens on occasion, it is obtuse. It is only as long as it needs to be, but no shorter than is required. It is bold, unless, of course, it happens to be subtle. It always starts at the beginning, unless the end is a better place to begin. It answers those questions which must be answered and leaves the rest to imagination and reflection. It never uses ‘which’ unless followed by a comma. It sometimes breaks all the rules of grammar.
But this is not helping much is it? To be more clear, the key to listening is putting aside your ego. You cannot get out of your own way fast enough. Any time you try to impress someone with your writing the chances are you aren’t listening closely enough. None of us are perfect listeners and so your work is never perfect. Stop boasting. If you realized instead that the work had already been written and that you were simply putting to paper in our universe what is already perfect in another, you would be much more humble about the product — thankful that the universe of written poetry and prose existed at all. God could just as well have overlooked it.
This sister universe is the reason you so often find novelists contemplating the nature and motivations of the characters in their latest book. Though they rarely admit it, what novelists are doing is listening. The universe of the written word is also the reason you sometimes feel a little knot in the pit of your stomach when you finish writing. You know something isn’t quite right. You kept in a paragraph you should have removed in editing. “It sounds so sophisticated,” you think, “I have to leave it in.” But this is you talking when you should be listening. Sophistication is no reason to include prose. The only reason to keep written words in your final product is because the product itself asks you to.
The key to becoming a better listener is to write often and to read those that have already learned how to listen well. Listening is hard. It takes a lifetime to learn and when we die our writing is still confused by the noisy clutter of our own minds and irrepressible egos. We were not built to listen. We think the right word to use is the one that shows off all of the vocabulary we acquired while studying for the GRE. We tend to imitate the bad listeners and ignore the good ones because we mistake obscurity for depth and clarity for ordinariness. But clarity is anything but — clarity is extraordinary.
Remember, you cannot get out of your own way fast enough. Do not get seduced by what you think sounds good, or what will impress your boss or lover or professor, or what will show off your dazzling intellect. You can never write better than what our sister universe has already written for you, and you are fighting an uphill battle if you try. So perhaps the next time someone commends you for having written a wonderful little article you’ll respond, “It was nothing really. All I did was listen.”