The Best Kind of People (especially writers) Notice Things

There is a fantastic blog post on Tim Ferriss’s blog about the work and thoughts of professor/writer Sam Apple. I have a link at the end of this post because you should probably read it in its entirety if the act of noticing as a writer resonates with you. Or maybe even if it doesn’t

When I mentor people and edit them, I often tell them to go specific in their details (but don’t overload those details), and in order to go specific, you have to become adept at noticing things.

Apple speaks of what it means to ‘notice as a writer.’

I like to define it as “the combination of close observation and insightfulness.” 

Sam Apple

He then explains ‘close observation.’

Close observation is easy enough to grasp. Let’s take an example: As I’m typing this sentence, I might look down and notice my hands moving over my keyboard. That’s “noticing” in the ordinary sense of the word—what you might think of as “first-order noticing.” To notice my typing hands in the way of a writer, I have to be far more specific. I might notice the rhythmic rise and fall of my knuckles or how the tendons on the back of my hand bulge and twitch with each keystroke. I might notice how some keys are almost silent while others respond to my fingertips with a pronounced—and somehow satisfying—clack.

Sam Apple

So, then we have that second aspect — insight.

Great writing typically involves more than description or a simple narration of events. Writing is also a search for meaning. Sometimes an observation or image speaks for itself. But often writers need to be able to say something about what they’ve noticed. 

Sam Apple

And that’s where I think being a great writer and a great human overlap. If we can notice the worlds and details, the feeling and aspects of other people, animals, landscapes big and small? And then if we took that extra step to let insight bubble and sprout from what we’ve noticed?

How big a deal would that be?

How deep? How growing?

Apple teaches a class on noticing at John Hopkins and in the blog writes:

For my class, I ask students to keep a “noticing journal” throughout the semester. Sometimes I ask them to notice objects or actions, as in the typing examples above. Other times, we apply the same observational and imaginative powers to our own lives and emotions. When we turn to the noticing of others, it can lead to remarkably empathetic writing. It is hard to truly hate people if you’ve spent enough time observing them and wondering about them. The celebrated fiction writer George Saunders captures this notion perfectly in this essay on “what writers really do when they write.”

Sam Apple

You don’t need to be a writer to train your noticing skills or your empathy, but both writers and those of us who don’t write, can really learn from this.

We can learn from noticing, observing and wondering. And maybe that’s one of those steps we can take to make ourselves better people and this a better world?


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