“Take a walk with me,” I said.
My students, some twenty-one freshmen, followed me into the hallway. “We’re going to take a walk around the building,” I told them. “I want you to just notice things.”
With my cowboy boots clicking on the tile floors, I moseyed down the hall with the pack of students behind me.
Some of them chit-chatted with each other. Almost all of them wondered what the heck we were doing: If this class was Composition and Critical Thinking, why were we going for a stroll?
The hallway makes a loop around the building, so about a minute and a half after we’d departed, we’d circled our way back to the classroom door.
“I’m sure it can be tough to notice things when you’re talking,” I said, “so I’d like you to take another lap—but this time, I really need you to notice things. Don’t let yourself get distracted, and please be considerate not to distract others.”
Again the pack strolled down the hallway. I watched them turn the corner—some of them still murmuring—then turned to face the opposite direction to greet them on their return.
As they filed back into the classroom, I asked them to jot down five things they noticed, and after a couple of minutes, I asked them to share their observations.
The funny red color of the walls. The plaque for the university’s five Pulitzer winners. The pop machine with three buttons for Mountain Dew. The plastic tube full of recycled batteries. The LED sign that said “Welcome class of 2013.” A classroom with students in it.
“Which classroom?” I asked.
“That one over there,” the student replied, pointing through the wall in the general direction of “right.”
“Anyone notice how many classrooms are over there?” I asked. No one had. Someone guessed, hopefully but incorrectly, “Five?” I shook my head. “Three classrooms and a computer lab,” I told them.
“It’s important to pay attention to details because, as a writer, you’ll need to share details with your readers if you want them to really understand what you’re talking about,” I explained. “‘Funny shade of red,’ for instance, may mean one thing to you—” I pointed at a student, then at two others, “—but it may mean something else to you or to you, so when you describe something you need to be sure you’re not being vague. ‘Funny’ doesn’t really mean anything.”
I shifted gears. “So far, y’all are just telling me about things you saw,” I pointed out. “How many sense do you have?”
We went through a few more details that they’d noticed. The click of my boots. The dean of the journalism school, smiling, as he passed my students in the hall. A display case full of books by alums, including one by Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto. Laughter from a classroom. The smell of fall in the air by the building’s front door.
“As your peers were sharing things they noticed, how many of you heard things that you didn’t notice?” I asked. Everyone’s hand shot up. “What I’d like you to do is take another lap, and this time, look for something that one of your classmates saw that you didn’t.” Off they went.
When they returned, I invited them to consider what we were up to. “Let’s assume for a moment that our walk is a metaphor for writing,” I said. “What does it mean?”
I took a sip from my tea and, over the rim of my mug, watched the students as their ideas percolated. I could see it on their faces, and I could see their eyes light up as they started to get it.
“The more times you go over something, the more you’ll notice—like if you’re doing editing,” a student offered.
“You need to take your time so that you notice things when you’re proofreading,” offered another.
“And you need to take your time when you’re gathering information before you write, too,” said a third. “That way, you can be sure you have enough material when it’s time to write.”
“Does the walk give you time to think about what you’re going to write?” someone asked.
I nodded. “I never sit down to actually write until I have it all worked out in my head first,” I replied. I then pointed to a young lady whose hand had shot up. “Having an extra set of eyes look things over can help you catch things that you didn’t catch,” she said.
“You need to be able to work at your own pace,” said another young lady.
“Yes,” I said, “you need to find a pace that allows you to do your best work. The first time we went around, you let me set the pace and y’all just followed. In this field, as a communications professional, only one reporter gets the scoop. Only one PR agency gets the client. Only one writer gets the award. If you stick with the rest of the pack, you won’t be ‘the one.’ Break away from the pack and work in a way that lets you work to your best potential so you can be ‘the one.’ Show people things no one else is showing them.”
It’s the best piece of advice I can give them as young writers: “Take the time to take the walk.”
“It’ll be hard,” I acknowledged. “You’ll have so many demands on your time. There are nine million things to do at college, and they’re all more fun than editing and proofreading and researching.
“But look at the benefits you get from devoting that extra time. You have a much richer experience as a writer, and you can do a much more effective job with your editing. You can help people see things they don’t notice for themselves,” I said.
“Take the time to take the walk. You’ll be amazed at what you get out of it.”