Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Why Listening Must Come Before Writing

Editor’s Note: This is a guest article by Keith Ferrin, who is an author, blogger, and speaker. You can connect with him on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter @KeithFerrin. His new book came out this spring.

I had it all figured out. I knew what I was going to write — a simple little eBook I would give away to people who subscribed to my blog. Somewhere between 5000 and and 800 words.

Not only that, but it was going to be easy.

Listen Before Writing

Photo Credit: Fey Ilyas via Compfight cc

After all, I’ve been speaking on the topic for almost two decades. This would be a simple, short compilation of my most practical tips and illustrations. It certainly wouldn’t take longer than a month to write, and maybe another month to let people read, review, and share it.

Yep. I knew exactly what this was going to be. (Ignore that chuckling sound. It’s just God. He does that to me a lot.)

Asking for help

In a rare moment of clarity, I decided to write a blog post about what I was planning and ask readers for help.

Mainly, I wanted ideas of what to include in case I was leaving out something important. I thought there would be a handful of responses, and I would crank this out quickly.

I had no idea what would follow:

  • “Do you remember the time you spoke about…? “
  • “What about this story…?”
  • “Have you thought about a study guide?”
  • “I know seven people already I want to give this to.”

The biggest surprise came when I was telling someone about the book and he replied,

What if I donated some money so you could create a video series for this? 

Um. Yes, please.

Creating a community

At this point, I knew had to push “pause” and continue these conversations elsewhere. So I started a private Facebook page to further flesh these ideas out before writing my book.

I sent one email to my mailing list, thinking a dozen or so people would join the group. It ended up being 98.

The results with the book (so far) have been incredible:

  • It ended up three times as lo2eng as I originally imagined.
  • There’s a print version.
  • There’s an audio version.
  • On April 18, 2013 “10 Tips for Liking the Bible (Because Believing It’s True Is Not Enough)” was released. (The title might be the only thing that hasn’t changed.)
  • It ended the day at #4 in its category on Amazon.
  • There’s a 50-page Study Guide for individuals and groups.
  • Several bloggers who write on a whole host of topics are helping me spread the word.
  • Filming for the video series begins next month!

Here’s the takeaway: None of this would have happened if I hadn’t listened before I wrote.

This experience of writing my latest book taught me three important lessons about listening that, quite frankly, I had neglected.

1. Until you listen, you don’t know what your audience wants

I thought I knew. And yes, I knew some of what they wanted.

But I had no idea what they were most passionate about. What had to be in there. What could be left out.

After sitting down with people — as well as reading emails, blog comments, Facebook posts, and Twitter messages — I knew.

2. Until you listen, you won’t be as good as you could be

My launch team taught me this one. (If you are a writer and you’re considering a launch team — do it. It’s a blast.)

The quantity of mistakes they caught in my first draft were, well, embarrassing. They were also necessary. Typos. Wrong words. Missing words. Analogies that didn’t stick. Sentences that didn’t flow. You name it, they caught it.

Simply put: The book is heaps better because I listened to them.

3. Until you listen, you don’t know what’s possible

This one is huge. Listening helps you dream.

Your audience will see possibilities you pass over. They will tell you what “could” be. They will let you know what they want and need from you. They will share their expectations.

What better way to exceed expectations than to know them ahead of time?

They will also give you a testing ground for all those ideas.

Next time you think you know what you’re going to write, push pause and listen to your audience.

Who knows? They might even offer to fund a video project.

Note: This was so above and beyond what I expected, I’ve decided to GIVE AWAY the book for the rest of the year. Grab your copy here.

What’s one project you’re currently working on that could benefit from a little more listening? Share in the comments.

About Keith Ferrin

Keith is an author, blogger, and speaker. You can connect with him on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter @KeithFerrin.

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  • Touchdown, Mr. Keith. The power and importance of listening! Yeah, really it’s the folks out there (the readers) who it needs to connect with ultimately. Plus, it will give the readers an invested connection. It becomes ‘their’ book. Powerful approach indeed. Might call the approach the ‘reduced-ego authorship style’. 🙂

    • Oooo…I like that. The “reduced-ego authorship style.” Nice. Mind if I steal it? 🙂

    • Sarah Beckman

      I like that phrase too!

  • I just completed a book and did put questions on my facebook page to get input as to what should be included in the book.

    I do have a question for you though. Did you find conflicting suggestions? Or did it seem like things fit together well?

    • Great question Anne! I would say “both!” I think it’s really important to know what you want to book to “accomplish” prior to asking for suggestions. Since I knew what I wanted the end result to be, it was easier to filter out what wasn’t as relevant – and file other suggestions over for later projects. When I just want lots of brainstorming ideas, I typically use a survey. In this case, it was a bit more about letting them know “Here’s what I want to do. How can I best do it in a way that serves you?” Thanks Anne.

  • Cool story. Thanks for the encouragement and advice. PS, I downloaded your book. Thanks for that too!

    • Thanks Michael! Glad you grabbed the book. I was so excited when my Board of Directors said “yes” when I asked if I could GIVE it away! Very, very fun.

  • Sue Neal

    A great story about the power of listening. The best authors, like the best speakers, are always great listeners. I think this also includes listening to our own inner voice, as well as listening to others. If we don’t listen, how on earth do we hear what to write?

    • Amen Sue! In addition to engaging with my blog readers, Facebook friends, etc. I also spent some very-early-morning time starting to develop a discipline of silence. Not easy, but so, so necessary in our noisy world.

  • kim

    Keith, can’t wait to read your book – this is an area that I really want to write about too as I fall in love with reading the bible myself lately. But I need to take time to listen before I go off on my own tangent 🙂 thanks for the inspiration today!

    • Thanks Kim. I would love to hear your thoughts after you get a chance to read it…especially since you’re writing in the same “space.” The info to contact me is in the back of the book.

  • Thanks for sharing this approach, Keith, and showing the importance of listening before writing. Very helpful!

  • Christy Campbell

    Hi Keith, this was a great read, thanks so much for sharing your experience–and your book–I just went over and signed up for a copy. I loved this because I also have a project that I’m working on and would absolutely love more input but unfortunately, I don’t yet have such a large audience to solicit suggestions from (particularly from those I most want to serve). Any advice for those of us who are still “building our platform” on ways to reach out and gain input?

    • I would start with people you know IN PERSON and also on Facebook. many of the people who gave me great input were people from church and friendships online. Even if you only get input from 10-20 people your writing will certainly be better for it.

      • Christy Campbell

        Thanks! Will start there!

  • Sharon Undt

    I enjoyed being a part of your launch team, Keith, I loved your book, & also am greatly blessed by your podcasts. Keep up the great work!

    • So thankful you were part of the team Sharon!

    • And I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. I’m really having a blast!

  • Sarah Beckman

    I did the same with the current book I’m writing about loving your neighbor through trials. It has reminded me that we are not an island, and God never intended us to live that way “iron sharpens iron” and “a cord of three strands cannot be broken” There is a tendency to think that we have the goods, but in fact if we are really writing “for our audience” (and not for ourselves to be heard or to get our message out there) we should always be asking and LISTENING yes! to what they not only have to say, but what they want.

    Well said. And I do LOVE THE BOOK!

    • Thanks Sarah! I just finished your book on my last flight. Great work!

  • Why we need input?

    Its simple to produce output. Same can be said for listening and writing. If we listen then we can get ideas for writing, we can learn many new things, and on top of everything as you said we will able to know want people want from us.

    I listen to everyone, because I know everyone has something to say and they all want a ear to listen to their problems, their worries. I like to be that ear. _romy

    • That’s wonderful that listening is so natural for you, Romy. I know it is something I have to train myself to stop and do intentionally or I will just plow on through!

  • stacey29lincoln

    To paraphrase Tozer, most preachers (speakers, writers) prepare 10% and teach 90%. When actually it should be prepare 90% and speak 10%. Listening is part of preparing. Your message will always be more powerful when you prepare!

    God bless your book and your launch!

    • Great quote…er…paraphrase…from Tozer. 🙂 So true!

  • Kathee Stone Lyndon

    A great testimony and a great exhortation to us aspiring writers. I would love to see this article turned into one of the hour long seminars at the Northwest Christian Writer’s Conference in the spring!

    • Great idea Kathee. I will propose it. See…I’m listening. 🙂

  • Dana Maye Buchmiller

    Thanks so much for this article. It is just what I needed.

  • Kendra Burrows

    Great thoughts, Keith! Thanks for sharing. I was glad to be introduced to your ministry this morning.

    • Me too Kendra. Looking forward to getting to know you better.

  • But aren’t you supposed to write for yourself first? Just kidding. There are few people more qualified to tell you what your audience wants than your actual audience.

  • Bethany

    Awesome title, awesome post, and awesome blog. I immediately went and subscribed to your blog posts. A friend and I were just talking about this subject yesterday. Your post is timely and clarified our discussion. Thank you for the post and the great book (will be weekend reading). Thank you, Jeff, for the awesome guest.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post…and joined the conversation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts after your “weekend reading!”

  • renee

    Great points! I have a extremely small yet very involved set of “insiders” for my cookbook, Blessed by Breakfast. It feels like I’m writing with them not at them. Once I figured that out . . . I started rewriting the entire book with a different light.

    Be Blessed.

    • Thanks Renee. Well said. Has so much more to do with whom and what you listen to rather than simply the quantity of voices.

  • kathunsworth

    Good thoughts on a page. I find the skill of listening gets easier as I age, I had huge problem with it when I was younger, I was called the chatty girl. I am now thinking when I read comments from my readers they are seeking positive creative life changes for mostly women from forty and upwards, thats who my writing has attracted and I love it! It was not intentional at first. Now I want offer hope that dreams even in the mid season of life can come true if you work hard enough. Thanks for the reminder.

    • You have a worthy calling! And you used one of my favorite words: intentional! Absolutely essential.

    • Can you share you blog link? I’d love to check it out.

      • kathunsworth

        Thanks Keith Im at https://kathunsworth.com it is a work in progress.

        • Very cool sight Kath. Love your art, writing, style, and the “noticing” you seem to do of the little things that give meaning and inspiration. Thanks for sharing!

          • kathunsworth

            Keith Thank you I appreciate you taking the time to check it out. have a great sunday

  • pstmct

    We need this so much. The Bible needs to be more than just old words on alot of pages to people. We are blessed that you listened to your audience, but more than that, You listened to God. Thank You Keith.

    • My pleasure. I pray that my book helps the Bible become even MORE alive for you!
      ——– Original message ——–

  • This post has got me thinking. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to write an ebook for my blog too, though I’m still unsure of the topic to address. Trying to gather some feedback from others may be a place to begin, and one I hadn’t thought of. Thanks.

    • Definitely write the book Micah! What might be helpful is to spend some time thinking about 3-4 ideas of what sits at the intersection of what your are passionate about and what your audience needs. Then ask them for input on which one they want and what it needs to include to really serve them. You will have people on board and excited before you ever start writing. Keep me posted!
      ——– Original message ——–

  • I’m just getting to the place where I’m excited about content not for the approval i hope to get, but for the help I hope others will glean. Listening is a huge part of that. Well done!

    • Very well said. Helping others is so much better – and ultimately much more satisfying – than the approval we so often seek.
      ——– Original message ——–

  • Great post! I’m working on a new eBook and this is exactly what I needed to hear. I really want to scratch where my audience is itching. And to do so (as you said so well) is to listen. Thanks!

    • I am really glad it was helpful Dave. What are the ideas you currently have for your new book?
      ——– Original message ——–

      • Hey Kevin. I am building on my POV of my blog, that is, how we can discover our purpose in the “alley.” I use the alley as a metaphor of a place of struggle and the unexpected. My eBook will dive into this idea a bit deeper. You can check my site out if I interested: http://www.reflectionsfromthealley.org. Thanks!

        • Dave – You really explore some great topics on your blog. Hospitality and serving displaced people is so huge…and frequently lost in the church. Thanks for standing in the gap for so many. Feel free to ping me if you have any questions as you pursue listening – and writing – your next book!

          • Thanks Kevin. I’ll keep that in mind & will take you up on that offer. I’d also love to connect with you on Twitter & FB.

            • Love to connect. Facebook.com/keithferrin and @keithferrin. Just remember my first name is Keith – not Kevin – if you are doing a search. 😉

  • Marilyn Shannon

    Thank you for posting this about listening. Listening is the most important tool we have. I like to refer to it as the sense of all senses.

    • The “sense of all senses.” I like that!

      ——– Original message ——–

  • fillingblankpages.com

    I love this idea. I think so often writers want to hoard their ideas (myself included) because they are so afraid that someone will steal the concept or plot. This article does a really good job of pointing out that writing is about sharing… and that the more you share the better your writing will be. Besides….for centuries we have retold and reinterpreted the same stories over and over again (ex. Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice) and even though it is a plot we already know, it doesn’t make us like the story any less. At the end of the day… it is the authors voice that ends up making the story.

    • Indeed. And if we already have an audience, listening will help us tell the story in a way that they will receive it better and enjoy it even more!
      ——– Original message ——–

  • Hi , thanks for sharing this information, i have read this article carefully, your idea about sites is very amazing.

  • This is great. Listening is great for discovering ideas, building relationships, and as you discovered writing books. Good work.

  • Steve Cooper

    Thanks Jeff and Keith. Your experience and your willingness to share show you care about your craft and your readers.The post has awakened new interest in me in at least two projects I have been working on. 1. The pain of child abuse, which can hardly be more complex. What do we do about it, and how does one overcome it? 2. As a Certified Health Minister and coach, we’re working on the How-To of understanding that food is the best medicine for any illness or condition. What does it take to help people get it before they get sick? I’m listening!

    • Those are two very important projects Steve. Do you already have some built in places to “listen?” On the first topic, you might want to check out the new book “The Wall Around Your Heart” by Mary DeMuth (www.marydemuth.com). She’s a terrific writer and this new book is – in part – about healing, processing, and growing from abuse. Press on. Looking forward to watching your progress!

      • Steve Cooper

        This sounds hopeful. Thanks for the tip on Mary’s book. I’ll check it out—and yours as well. Be well!

        • You too Steve. Interested in hearing your thoughts after you’ve given it a read!

  • Terrific post Keith! What a pleasure to read.
    I have a small niche: anti-slavery activists . . . in Canada. Told you it was small. It is tricky just to find people in order to ask the questions I need answers to. Like, what would encourage you to lead an anti-slavery project?

    My guess is that you would advise me to network. Write guest posts on blogs. Create community.

    • That’s such an important niche, Marilyn! (Though it feels strange to call it a “niche” being such a serious topic.) Whom do you typically talk about this with? Who got you interested? It doesn’t need to be a large group. Even 5-10 people could give you great feedback. Also, have you reached out to some of the folks at IJM (International Justice Mission)? They are a terrific organization with the same passion, and might be able to point you toward some local people you can dialogue with. Let me know what you find.

      • Thank you Keith.
        I learned about modern slavery from a book about William Wilberforce. That lead to more great books, like, Gary Haugen’s (founder of IJM) Good News About Injustice.

        The word, niche, does seem better suited to blogs about hobbies, skills, interests. The anti-slavery cause is about activism. It’s a hard sell. The writing has to be good. And it has to add value.

        That’s why I scout out great blogs and headlines and give aways Like your piece here. It is rich.

        I need to set a recruitment goal. I need to find people in surrounding communities who will engage in this cause. You are right, five or ten people are enough to create feedback.

        • Thanks Marilyn. Press on. I look forward to hearing how this develops for you.