How to Become a Better Writer by Becoming a Better Noticer

Credit: Yannick Pulver

Sam Apple (samapple.com) is the author of the new book Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection. It’s the story of a brilliant scientist in Nazi Germany and how the rediscovery of his long-lost metabolism research is fundamentally changing the way we think about cancer. The book emerged from a piece Sam wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2016. An exclusive, unpublished excerpt from that article appeared on this very blog.

His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, Financial Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and McSweeney’s, among many other publications. Sam teaches science writing and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.  

What follows is a short guest post from Sam on how better noticing can make for better writing, including writing exercises (click that link to go down directly to the exercises) to help you develop your own noticing powers.

Enter Sam… 

When I tell people I teach a class at Johns Hopkins on “noticing,” they’re often surprised and a little confused. Noticing doesn’t sound like something that needs to be taught—let alone in a graduate writing program. It begins to make a little more sense, I hope, when I explain that the course is called “Noticing as a Writer” and that noticing in the way of a writer is different from the ordinary noticing we all do each day.

So what does it mean to “notice as a writer”? I like to define it as “the combination of close observation and insightfulness.” 

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.

Or I might notice a hundred other things. There is not one correct thing to notice about typing hands or anything else. For the writer, the aim is to notice in a way that makes the object of the noticing feel suddenly new, suddenly more interesting than it has any right to be. It’s not unlike how a good photographer can take a good photograph of almost anything by finding the right lens and lighting and angle. I sometimes describe the process as “seeking the extraordinary in the ordinary.” 

Let’s take an example from one of the greatest noticers in history, David Foster Wallace. In his famous commencement speech, “This is Water”—which is about the power of noticing—Foster Wallace recounts the experience of going to a grocery store on a stressful day. A less skilled noticer might write, “You go to the store and it’s crowded. The cashier looks angry and the shopping carts are broken.” Now see how the same moment comes alive in Foster’s prose through better noticing:

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to ‘Have a nice day’ in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left….

Not “the cashier was tired” but the cashier saying, “Have a nice day” in a “voice of death.” Not “the shopping cart was broken” but “the cart with one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left.” Earlier, I compared writing to photography; as Foster Wallace shows in these lines, one of the key skills is knowing how to zoom in. 

Let’s take another example from the wonderful writer Clare Sestanovich. In this passage from her short story “Old Hope,” Sestanovich’s narrator writes about living in a run-down house with a group of twenty-somethings. She might have written “the house smelled.” Instead, she noticed in the way of a writer and wrote this:

The house smelled of sweat and bike tires and something at the back of the oven being charred over and over again.

If there is not one correct way to notice, there are ways to go wrong. Beginning writers often mistake quantity for quality. If you do too much noticing all at once, you risk boring your readers. And if you try to pack too many observations into a single sentence, you risk becoming unintelligible. 

Take this sentence: Watching my own hands typing, I notice my wrinkled knuckles rapidly rising and falling over the rectangular keyboard with every soft tap of the black plastic keys, which give way to the soft pressure of my hurried fingertips. 

There are some good concrete details, but the sentence is too dense with description. The reader feels overwhelmed—and probably stops reading. 

Insightfulness

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. Let’s return to the typing example. Say I want to write about typing, and I’ve observed the frenzied movements of my fingers over my keyboard. That’s a good start, but it’s still first-order noticing. “Noticing as a writer” means taking your observations to new places. 

So I keep looking and letting my thoughts wander. Now, I notice that my fingers seem to be moving as if they have a mind of their own, that they somehow find the right keys even before I’m consciously aware that I’m searching for them. As I ponder this, it begins to seem almost as if my fingers are autonomous, as if I am passively watching my fingers type. I look at my hands again. They look different now, somehow alien. Instead of a curled hand connected to frenzied fingers, I see two little crabs scurrying across a beach. I look again. The tendons on the back of my hands suddenly resemble marionette strings; my fingers, dancing puppets. 

Maybe one image or metaphor is enough. That depends on what you’re writing and your audience. But now that I’ve wondered about the autonomy of my typing fingers, I’ve created the possibility of more wondering. I might now reflect on any number of subjects. I might wonder about free will or where creativity comes from. I might think about the neurological condition in which people do, in fact, feel disassociated from their own limbs. What started out as a simple observation about moving hands on a keyboard is now a meditation on what it means to feel like a coherent person. 

Let’s look at an example from Leave the World Behind, a great novel by Rumaan Alam. In a passage near the beginning of the book, a couple, Clay and Amanda, are driving on the highway with their children: 

Clay drummed fingers on the leather steering wheel, earning a sideways glance from his wife. He looked at the mirror to confirm that his children were still there, a habit forged in their infancy. The rhythm of their breath was steady. The phones worked on them like those bulbous flutes did on cobras.

Already Alam has moved from the close observation of his children gazing at their phones to the image of a cobra responding to a flute. In the next step, he pushes further, from imagery into insight:

None of them really saw the highway landscape. The brain abets the eye; eventually your expectations of a thing supersede the thing itself.

As with close observation, too much wondering can drag a piece to a halt or take it in too many directions. Not every insight belongs in a piece of writing, and most of what you wonder about will never appear in your essay or story or article. But the wondering that never makes it onto the finished page is still a critical part of the process. To get to the really good stuff, you have to allow yourself to wonder without restraints. Bad writing is the greatest source of good writing. Or, as I sometimes tell my students, profundity is hard work. 

Everything I’ve said so far applies to writing. But I write about science, and I’ve come to think great science also comes down to the combination of close observation and wonder. And just as good writing comes from bad writing, the best scientists I know often tell me that their breakthroughs have come from wondering about experimental findings that, at first, seemed entirely meaningless and irrelevant to their research. 

How You Can Become a Better Noticer—and Writer

I decided to teach “noticing as a writer” because I believe good noticing is the fundamental building block of all good writing. I also love that noticing is a skill that every student can get better at. It’s not unlike taking piano lessons. Not everyone who sits down at the piano for the first time has a great deal of natural ability, but almost everyone can improve with enough practice. 

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.”

I also have students perform a number of writing exercises I created to inspire better noticing. Following are a few you might try to improve your own writing.

Exercises

1. The German Word Exercise
It’s often said that the Germans have a word for everything. The most famous example is Schadenfreude —pleasure one derives from another’s misfortune. But there are countless others: Politikverdrossenheita disenchantment with politics—is a word that English could really use. Then there’s Kummerspeck—the excess fat gained from emotional overeating. It literally translates to “grief bacon.”

But, of course, there are countless subtle experiences and emotions that have not yet been named in any language. This exercise asks you to identify an experience or emotional state that hasn’t yet been named and to write a short passage about it. (Make the word up too!)

2. The “Seeking the Extraordinary in the Ordinary” Exercise
Find an everyday object in your home and describe it in exquisite detail while also reflecting on what the object means to you or makes you think about. 

3. The Alien Exercise
Imagine that you’re an alien arriving on planet Earth for the first time. You have to write a report on “the humans.” The idea is to help you look at daily life through fresh eyes. When done properly, almost everything we do can seem newly strange.

4. The Noticing Chain
Maybe the most important of all, this exercise involves noticing something—it can be anything—and writing it down in a few sentences. The aim is then to do a second noticing that builds upon the first—and to continue for at least ten steps, pushing the thinking further and further. Students are often amazed by where their thoughts end up by the fifth step.

5. Reading Like a Writer
If you want to improve your noticing—or any other aspect of your writing—you also have to read a lot and pay close attention to how professional writers do it. And if you need a place to start, you could (ahem) purchase a new book called Ravenous

###

Afterword from Tim: If you decide to do one of the exercises, please post a sample in the comments below. For inspiration, you can find examples from Sam’s students on the following page.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

Leave a Reply to milen-kolev yordanov Cancel reply

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)

14 Replies to “How to Become a Better Writer by Becoming a Better Noticer”

  1. Kortenagelsglee – The sensation of typing with 10 fingers with freshly cut nails. The delight and ease with which you can type after you have taken the time to trim your fingernails.This goes for playing the piano as well.

    1. and especially playing the guitar… the way your fingers seem to glide effortlessly across the frets on the fingerboard. Its like shaving and extra 3 lbs of weight from the chassis of a formula one car giving you exponential lap time increases and putting you in the pole position.

  2. Another gem… got me thinking again. I like noticing and creating stories in my head too – yesterday I was subbing for a kindergarten teacher. The task of keeping 15 five-year-olds in line for two and a half hours is not much different from taking care of the same amount of bunnies on a meadow – if you lose sight of one, a moment later you find yourself running in three different directions at the same time. And the “best part” of it is that you cannot physically catch them and make them sit tight (it applies to both species). So I noticed that when one of the boys would come to complain that “someone took his truck or stepped on his drawing or told him that he was stupid”, the vein in his neck (the aorta?) would bulge and I could see it pumping furious blood down from his cute little head. I could almost see the indignation running through his body. And I was thinking how this vein fills his whole body with outrage at all the injustice done to him within such a short period of time.
    For those who are still reading, here is my made-up word and feeling – “Grandestinangst” – this feeling has been haunting me since the pandemic crippled my little private practice – it is a gnawing mix of knowing that I have it in me to contribute much more to the well-being of the World than I am actually managing to do, burning ambition to “Make the world a better place and help people feel better in their skins”, uncertainty about how exactly to apply all the knowledge I have been absorbing voraciously, and the anxiety and worry that I may never be able to “Fulfill God’s plan” for me despite of my best intentions and the constant groping for “My Grand Purpose in Life”. Oh, yes – everything topped with the little nagging “Yeah, right, and what makes you think that you even have the potential anyway” in the back of my head… I am guessing most of you who had the patience to read thus far are thinking “Boy, this guy is more f$%^ed up than I am”….. You are welcome 😉

    1. @Milen – “And I was thinking how this vein fills his whole body with outrage at all the injustice done to him within such a short period of time.” I’m struck by this as an example of how early our emotional and physiological patterning sets in. Thinking about this little boy, I notice I am sad for him and for all of us at the potential long term consequences if this reaction sets in as habit. The addiction to outrage is an epidemic that lies at the root of so many other epidemics (consider it as a cause for escape, ie addictions or as a cause for violence in response). I hope that someone else is noticing his reactions and supporting him in learning how to emotionally resource.

      “Grandestinangst” – thanks for putting a word to this. I feel it acutely. It’s nice to have a name for something, not least because in naming something we give ourselves permission to express it and in expressing it we learn we are not alone.

  3. Great read here. My two biggest takeaways are to try to use more specific words like the Germans, and to read like a writer. I think reading with that intention in mind will also help start a flywheel with the “noticing” tip.

  4. I found this article at the right time. The Noticing Chain is just what I currently needed to further develop my writing skills. Thanks for the tips!

  5. Geomelangraphy – the feeling of returning to a place that once felt like home or community and it feels foreign or you can no longer connect the place to the feeling of home

    Legouchpain – the distinctive, painful small death that occurs when you step on a Lego barefoot

    Blade Frugalism – a stubborn belief that one must use a razor blade head for a set period of time, no matter how dull or badly it cuts your face or skin, because that shit is expensive and you will not let the manufacturer win.

    Date Voyeurism – the tendency to observe two people (same sex or opposite sex) in a public setting (such as a restaurant or coffee shop) and guess if they’re friends or on a date based entirely on body language.

    Hydroketchup – that first bit of ketchup that comes out of the bottle when you forgot to shake it and it comes out as tomato water

    1. Great words! I plead guilty on both date voyeurism and blade frugalism….. as for legouchpain, I wonder if there could be a word for the “next level” – when you catch the bedframe edge with your toe pinky…. and you would rather have your pinky amputated if that would stop the pain…. bedagony?

  6. Flowenk – that other dimension you enter involuntarily where your thoughts are not censored and all the outside and inside noise and judgment go away and you are swept up inside this invisible and mysterious flow force like a mental slow moving undertow in the ocean, and along the shore are insane thoughts, pictures, and ideas, and you don’t choose any of them, just notice them, and the next one is better than the one before. And you don’t judge any as being better or worse than the rest, because you know that once you do, the fun ride will be over. For me, it’s the ultimate joy, and I can never choose when it comes, this thing chooses me!

  7. Dear Tim,

    Publishing question here: I am interested in writing a book in a similar fashion to many of yours in which experts are interviewed on various topics. My question is how does that work financially? What should I expect when approaching my experts?