Writers: Why are you talking so much?

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I ask the question why are you talking?

Not infrequently, clients will ask me to help them burnish their interviewing skills.

I learned to interview as a journalist and I love teaching this skill to others. Why? Many people who find writing difficult assume the problem is their lack of writing skill. Instead, I often find, the heart of the challenge relates to poor interviewing practices. And fixing this problem is often easier — and faster — than repairing writing problems.

I thought again about this issue recently when I read a terrific column by Austin Kleon, under the headline “Why Am I Talking?” In this post, Kleon describes the mantra WAIT (which, of course, stands for Why Am I Talking?)

Then, he goes on to explain why he finds it more helpful than his typical mantra, Shut Up and Listen!

Exploring a back link in his post, I then uncovered a link to a terrific quote from the rightfully-lauded biographer Robert Caro:

“In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work.

“Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.”

Writers who can develop comfort with silence and learn to ask themselves, “why are you talking?” will see a corresponding improvement in their interviews.

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