One of the tools of the writing trade is observation. We learn early on that our senses provide valuable clues about potential ideas to explore. Wherever we go we tend to notice details that go unobserved by those who have not developed the habit of paying attention to their surroundings.
When kids ask what it takes to become a writer, I often suggest to them that it all begins with observing the world around them, taking notes, investigating the ideas that interest them, developing a vocabulary of information about their chosen subject, and only then are they likely to have something interesting to write about.
I admire the work of good photographers who often capture the moment framed in a way that tells its own story. That’s why so many teachers have found that asking their students to look at a picture and write about what it means to them is such a good exercise. The photographer or painter has already done the observing for them or at least focused on something that invites their interest and stimulates their imagination.
Becoming a good observer, I think, can be developed with practice. I like to watch people in a crowd. Some seem oblivious to their surroundings and spend their time in conversation, on their phones, reading a book, or swaying to the music. A few seem to be looking around. Their eyes are on the crowd, watching other people, enjoying the sounds and sights, perhaps smiling to themselves about something they’ve just observed. Whether they’re writers or not, they’re certainly employing one of the basic first steps of writing.
Try making a few entries in your journal of details you’ve noticed lately that you suspect others might overlook. The other day on my way into a restaurant I walked by a column that needed some paint. I was among several people going in and they all walked by the column without seeing the small moth resting there hidden in plain sight. Here it is.
On a walk past a wall of tangled trees and vines, the color white caught my eye deep in the thicket. I stopped to peer in and took this picture.
Will I ever write about the insect or the birds? Who knows? When a fisherman casts his net, he catches a lot of stuff he doesn’t need. But he never knows when the unexpected treasure will turn up.