Do you make time to observe your world? In this post, we discuss what paying attention really means and why you need to pay attention if you’re a writer.
One of the most important qualities a writer needs is the ability to pay attention.
Writing is all about creating and describing, and most of us get our ideas and inspiration from what we see, taste, smell, hear, and touch. We take ideas from books we’ve read, films we’ve watched, stories we’ve heard, and people we’ve met.
Great writers pay attention to everything and then find a way to put what they’ve experienced into words.
What Is Paying Attention?
Paying attention means you concentrate on something.
When you pay attention, you take notice without interfering. Attention is about taking the time to find out more, to discover, and to watch as things happen or change on their own.
When you pay attention, you do not judge or criticise. Paying attention is not critical. It is neutral.
If writers can get this right, they will uncover a treasure trove of material everywhere they go. They will concentrate on the details and that’s where the devil is, that’s where the important stuff resides.
How To Pay Attention
- Be quiet.
- Be patient.
- Use all five senses.
- Accept what you experience without judging it.
Write down what you’ve experienced afterwards.
Why You Need To Pay Attention If You’re A Writer
To pay attention is the gateway to becoming empathetic.
When we pay attention, we gain insight into people and places. We may have seen a person a thousand times, but until we really pay attention, we don’t understand them.
In another post on this website, Anthony Ehlers describes how noticing a perfect moment made him actually look at what was around him. He says: ‘You can learn the craft of plot, of developing character, of refining genre — and all these are important steps to becoming a great writer — but at the heart of it, it’s really about capturing how you see the world. The beautiful, the seedy; the thrilling smile from a stranger, the polished shoes of a policeman, the way stained glass in a church makes you think of wine gums.’
A writer has the power to make things that weren’t obvious visible. The best writers do this all the time. They put what they have observed into a narrative.
Paying attention – watching people and listening to them – is also a great way to beat writer’s block.
[Suggested reading: 17 Ways To Think Like A Writer Every Day]
What Famous Writers Say About Paying Attention
I’ve included these quotations from writers who knew all about the importance of paying attention.
- ‘Pay Attention. Notice the quality of light, the heft of air, colour of sky, faces, clouds, flowers, garbage, graffiti — all of it. Slow down and pay attention. Stop during your walks and examine a leaf. Read the writing in shop windows. Observe people getting on a bus, the bus driver, the stink of the bus exhaust.’ ~Judy Reeves
- ‘Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.’ ~Mary Oliver
- ‘But the sensibility of the writer, whether fiction or poetry, comes from paying attention. I tell my students that writing doesn’t begin when you sit down to write. It’s a way of being in the world, and the essence of it is paying attention.’ ~Julia Alvarez
- ‘Pay Attention – I honestly believe that the quality of a writer’s work has a direct correlation to the quality of his or her attention. I have to remind myself all the time to show up in my moments with all my antennae switched on.’ ~Sue Monk Kidd
- ‘The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinise the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject. If the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers–has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.’ ~Mary Oliver
- ‘Writing is seeing. It is paying attention.’ ~Kate DiCamillo
- ‘The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.’~Henry Miller
- ‘Listening is terribly important if you want to understand anything about people. You listen to what they say and how they say it, what they share and what they are reticent about, what they tell truthfully and what they lie about, what they hope for and what they fear, what they are proud of, what they are ashamed of. If you don’t pay attention to other people, how can you understand their choices through time and how their stories come out?’ ~Marge Piercy
- ‘All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready.’ ~Paulo Coelho
- ‘Geniuses are people who notice things and connections between things which others haven’t noticed.’ ~Christopher Ricks
- ‘Zen pretty much comes down to three things — everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.’ ~Jane Hirshfield
- ‘A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.’ ~Susan Sontag
© Amanda Patterson
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