#WriteTip: Breaking Habits of Seeing

Posted by in Writing Tips | 69 comments

Spring has most definitely sprung, and what better way to celebrate than to pick up a camera and go outside. Today marks the mid-point of this blog’s celebration of National Poetry Month. So let’s take a break from poetry and practice seeing deeply instead. “Breaking Habits of Seeing” is a fun activity from Discovering the Writer Within by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane. Experienced writers make unique observations as second nature, but all writers occasionally fall victim to complacency. If you want to breathe new life into your writing, try this exercise.

Image of a dried leaf on rocky shore.

Breaking Habits of Seeing

Whether done alone, with members of a writers’ group, or with students or your children, remember to let yourself indulge in the playfulness of language.

  • Find a small rock. If not, any small, natural object will do: a stick, leaf, flower, pine cone, etc.
  • Generate a list of observations related to your rock. Go beyond the obvious. Keep passing the object around and adding to the list (if done as part of a group).
  • Keep looking closer. Don’t stop thinking and adding the list!!! Push yourself to see more than just a boring rock.
  • Now circle any observations that another person would not immediately see as obvious.

Consider what this silly exercise has to do with becoming a better writer or poet. What do the lists reveal? Were your observations mostly obvious or were you able to see things in new and interesting ways? Do you make things hard on yourself or is it easy to let the observations flow? How can over-thinking harm your writing?

The authors of Discovering the Writer Within note, “What makes familiar things worth writing about is that we are able to find a way to see them that makes them new, both for us and the people we write for.” Part of any writer’s duty is to remind ourselves to try to treat subjects in new ways. Simply churning out content without taking a unique perspective will mean a higher likelihood of failing to engage readers.

Follow Through

It can be hard to make observations that go beyond the obvious, or sometimes we’re just too plain stubborn to try thinking our writing is already perfect. To hasten the process, you will do the following:

  • Grab a camera and head outside.
  • Pick an inanimate object, preferably something that is familiar to you.
  • Set aside at least 15 minutes (it’s easy to get carried away with this one, believe me).
  • Limit yourself to no more than one roll of film and/or 50 digital pictures.
  • Make each shot as varied as possible. Aim for a variety of angles and distances. Better yet, if you have time, return to take pictures of the object as the light changes throughout the day.


Freewrite for five minutes about the taking the pictures. What did your camera see? Did your photos go beyond the obvious?

Ready for more practice?

You can continue to do more with your pictures by trying the exercise What Photography Can Reveal About Writing. Photography and the revision process have a lot in common when it comes to re-seeing subject matter in a variety of ways.

This exercise shares the same basic premise as Finding the Questions as featured in the book The Curious Researcher. Many approaches exist to find what is interesting or unique about any subject. Never stop trying to bring fresh angles to your writing. Your audience will respond in kind.

When is the last time you noticed something unique or made an unusual observation or connection about an everyday object? What tactics do you use to help your writing stand apart?

Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the leaf and rocks image in this post.

Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB

Jeri Walker-Bickett
JeriWB writes short stories, creative nonfiction, and psychological suspense. The rough Idaho mining town she grew up in populates her literary landscape. She also works as a freelance editor.
Jeri Walker-Bickett


Author of short stories, creative nonfiction, and psychological suspense. Blogger of writing tips and lit chat. Freelance editor. http://t.co/sfCsmQ5hyM
Dragonbride's December 2014 5-Star-Review http://t.co/7Tml3aB6XT via @RaaniYork - 26 mins ago
Jeri Walker-Bickett
Jeri Walker-Bickett
Jeri Walker-Bickett
I offer a variety of freelance editing services. Previously, I served as an editorial assistant with The Idaho Review, Boise State's literary journal.


  1. Hi Jeri,
    Thank you so much for your comment on my blog, about the Titanic. It is something about my childhood as a bookworm which has always made me interested in historical events, and discovering the fine details that most people don’t know about. It’s a hobby of mine, I guess! I’m only glad to have a blog to share some thoughts about my research, and hope that someone out there benefits. If you ever want to read a book or two on the Titanic, I would wholly recommend 2 great titles written by Walter Lord. You can find out more about in my April 7th post. I appreciating you stopping by my blog!
    ~ Tarissa

    • What a great hobby to have! Really, most students in public schools don’t have that type of passion for learning and knowledge, which points to how little value much of society places on education. I’m going to see Titanic in 3D, so I’m pretty happy about that. Your blog is great!

  2. A very interesting and useful concept. In fact, I participate in poetry/short fiction memes which draw inspiration from a random picture, a similar yet different concept. The diverse visions that people come up with, of, say a picture of a woman walking on the beach is really thrilling to read. Sometimes what you write ends up diagonally opposite to what you see in the picture. Thanks for visiting. It was nice meeting you.

    • I’ve also experimented with using images as writing prompts. I have a huge set of laminated magazine photos that I’ve used in the classroom from time to time, but also pull them out to see what kind of writing inspiration strikes! Thanks for checking out my blog. I’m glad I came across yours and hope you keep writing!

      • Usually when I write fiction it stems from a picture. It helps me to visualize so I can frame the words through it.

        • I have a huge stack of pics from National Geographic that I used to go through for inspiration, but I haven’t done that in quite some time. I need to try it again.

  3. Odd but adorable coincidence… I posted a photo to illustrate today’s Monster Meditation.

    I’m not a good photographer, nor am I surrounded by nature here in NYC (aside from the wild life of people acting out), but I will take my phone and give your exercise a try today.

    • Candy, NYC has lots of parks though. This exercise works well with any inanimate object. Pictures of a skyscraper would be quite interesting from many different angles. I got a kick of all the pictures of I took at MoMA of people looking at the most popular pieces of art.

  4. This is a great exercise not only in seeing differently but also in creating new possibilities or solutions. I’m going to borrow this idea for breaking through conflict logjams. Thanks.

    • Jagoda, that would be interesting to see how this type of exercise would play out in such a situation. Now I’m thinking about a time when I watched students at a conference being told to build a house together out of straws, only they would only do it with one hand because their other hand had been tied to the other person’s.

  5. Really valuable exercise. I have a huge story board for my novel that has not only visual images for all the main characters, but also jewelry, music, and other visual cues that “spell” my story. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to look at that board when I’m feeling a bit unfocused. Visual cues are so powerful, and really can help you describe things in an unexpected way.

    • Beth, I love the idea of your storyboard. I used one for awhile on Pinterest, and then got out of the habit. I need to take it up again because I like how those visual cues can keep me centered. If not, it’s too easy for me to go off on tangents, and then when I go back to read them, I freak out and wonder what I was thinking. Anything that can help keep me structured is always good.

  6. Sounds like an excellent excuse to get outside and away from the computer (which we all need from time to time so that we don’t develop writer’s butt syndrome!) Thanks, jan

    • Jan, when I was jogging this Saturday I kept stopping to take pictures of all the tulips and such. That’s what made me decide to post this exercise today. Taking pictures always brings ideas my way.

  7. Years ago, I started taking photos of the “stories” I could see in nature. I still do this almost daily as I discovered endless inspiration. You’d think it would end eventually, but it doesn’t. When we go beyond “seeing” we start connecting to something deeper. Great post!

    • Charli, I love that idea of taking pictures everyday. I’ll do that on occasion when I’m walking my dog, but it would be fun to make it a regular habit.

  8. Hi Jeri

    I am definitely going to do this experiment – it sounds like a lot of fun and I do think it could be very helpful when it comes to writing.

    • Lenie, you won’t regret it if you give this exercise a try. The follow-up post on photography and revision takes it even a step further. Enjoy!

  9. Jeri,

    Thanks for your suggested exercise. We all need to keep our brains working but not over thinking when it comes to our writing. I will try it right now. I can see how it will help.

    • Edward, I’m really bad about over-thinking my own writing, but at least that’s a plus when it comes to editing other people’s works. I crave exercises like this because they can trick my brain into getting out of a rut.

  10. Sounds like I am on the right track with the photos, I get inspired by photos of the places I have been and it helps me to write about them. I am also going to check out that book ‘Discovering the Writer Within’

    • Sandy, Discovering the Writer Within is full of great exercises that lead to all sorts of writing ideas. I worked my way through it as a student in college, and then later I also did the exercises with a student who was taking an advanced creative writing course form me when I taught high school classes.

  11. This would also be a great activity for kids. It kills two birds with one stone – well probably several birds. Love the idea!

    • Krystle, this would be a good one to try with our kids. Their imaginations will see so much in just a rock.

  12. Hi Jeri; I found it funny that you mentioned some people have problems with the exercise because they are stubborn and believe their writing is already perfect. I never believe that about anything I write. I will get to the point where I say that I don’t believe it needs more improvement to be submitted to my blog, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be much better. Thanks for sharing these tips as they make us all better writers. Take care, Max

    • Max, all true writers are like you in never thinking a piece is perfect or finished. Yet, many writers and bloggers get too comfortable in what they do and don’t try to shake things up every now and again. Going beyond the usual can do wonders for writing.

  13. I love this writing exercise. Unique & Imaginative.

    I will do this at the Young Author’s Conference! xx

    • Kim, this would probably be a big hit at a Young Writer’s Conference. I used to use this particular exercise with college composition students as well as high school students. At first, they would try to act like it was silly, but then they would really get into it in order to see what group could up with with the most unique descriptions.

  14. I like the camera idea. Sometimes you see things differently through a lens than you do in real life. When I was studying art and painting, I used to say that art was really about seeing. Artists (and writers) see things that aren’t immediately obvious to the casual observer. Great exercise, I’m going to try it with my kids.

    • Meredith, I’m still growing as a photographer, but I have always loved the connection that can be made between writing and photography. I never want to read writers what aren’t tackling subjects in new ways, and the same goes for photos as well.

  15. I always wonder if an exercise like this helps because the picture gives you ideas, or it forces you to focus on something. Any time I force myself to think, I do better, but if I’m not looking at something then I get distracted :)

    • Dan, I think pictures are always great sources of inspiration, but they also help when it comes to focus. The more time I’ve spent photographing or writing about a given subject, the more deeply and differently I will see it. It’s a good way to give ourselves permision to really delve into a topic and see what roads it leads us down.

  16. I will do that Jeri. Go outside with my camera I mean and select an object. I was recently in Yosemite and did that very thing with a leaf and a tree stump. It had fallen there naturally; no improv on my part. Turned out to be a great, at least I think so, picture. Thanks, Tim

    • Tim, it really is a great exercise :) I haven’t been to Yosemite since 2002, but I’ve been working on a travel piece about my visit and doing so has found me searching for a lot of images to help activate old memories.

  17. Great exercise Jeri. I think this intense looking happens when you draw as well. You see things to the point that they are divorced from the original object. Writers have a lot to learn from the visual arts. Words & images- my favorite. Thanks for another excellent post :-)

    • A.K., I always wished I could draw, but that aspect of creativity is one I possess next to no talent in.

  18. Great idea. What your suggesting is that even a simple rock can be a springboard to greater creativity. It’s akin to the saying, “Stop and smell the roses.” We’re all so busy with our lives that we don’t stop to appreciate the simple things in life that can give us such pleasure, like a single flower sticking out of a crack in the pavement.

    • Jeannette, a related exercise to this one is called “Finding the Questions.” I used to break students into groups and each group received something like cat food, socks, etc. Then they had to make a list of all the potential questions a writer might explore about the subject. It was great fun to see what everyone came up with. Such an exercise could just as easily be done with a writer’s group.

  19. Good exercise,Jeri. Practising it would be an anti-dote to people seeing what they want, or fear, to see.

    • Catarina, yes it really is the type of exercise that gets the participant to leave no stone unturned… pardon the pun ;)

  20. Good exercise in keeping the mind working and allowing your creativity to soar.

  21. I love the simple exercise. You know the expression, “take time to smell the roses”. It is interesting how something so simple can morph into something bigger. It is “always the small things that matter”. What happened to us that we forgot what it was when we were a child, it didn’t have to be big to be appreciated. At least it was that way when I was a child.

    • Arleen, as kids our minds are more malleable, but then that shifts as we grow older and lose some of that sense of play. It’s different for everyone, but at least exercises like this can help get us back to that frame of mind.

  22. I will try this exercise once the pollen subsides. It seems like something interesting can come from doing it.

    • Jason, I totally understand about the pollen and this time of year. There are so many things in Atlanta you could focus on for great photography subjects though.

  23. Jeri, I love your exercises. I took a picture, went outside, and listened to the sounds around me. My neighbor was playing upbeat Spanish music and there were alot of cars going by. I live on a main road. I have listened to all kinds of music during writing. I would specifically listen to a type of song to bring out whatever I am writing at the time. Thanks for the article. =)

    • Crystal, your comment makes me thing about how music can also be a great source of inspiration in writing as well. I need to get back to listening to music, but now that I don’t drive to work everyday, I find that I’m less likely to listen to songs. I definitely need to get back in the habit.

  24. I found your writing tips truly helpful, even when I am not properly saying a writer, but just a blogger who likes to write reviews on philosophy topics and literature. I sometimes write in a more personal way, though…
    As I see it, “breaking habits of seeing” and “follow through” might be probably connected … I think they seem to be successive steps in the same whole process of catching up with outer reality or inner fiction (as you wish to consider it Jeri!)… I also believe that perspective is an important element as the way we see things tend to define their shapes (going further: Maybe also the character´s psychological structures)

    Well then thanks for the thorough tips!.
    Best wishes, Aquileana :)

    • Aquileana, your comment brings to mind the subjective nature of reality. My perceptions of something I photograph will be influenced by all that factors that influence my life. No two people will see a subject in the same way.

    • Aquileana, your comment brings to mind the subjective nature of reality. My perceptions of something I photograph will be influenced by all that factors that influence my life. No two people will see a subject in the same way.

  25. What an interesting exercise to get the writer’s mind going. I am going to try it.

    • Donna, if you do try the photography exercise, let me know how it goes. You post such interesting desert pics on your blog.

  26. Hi Jeri,

    I’m always on the look out for a new writing tip, and I think that the idea of “seeing” can definitely be helpful. The greatest source of inspiration can come from the smallest things.

  27. nice one Jeri. This is something I am going to do. like this idea, breaking the habits of seeing. We actually see but do not see, if you think of it.

    • Welli, I like how you put it: “We actually see but do not see.” I think that’s why I sometimes get frustrated with some types of writing when they are all surface story. Action is good, but I also want depth and new ideas.

    • Welli, I like how you put it: “We actually see but do not see.” I think that’s why I sometimes get frustrated with some types of writing when they are all surface story. Action is good, but I also want depth and new ideas.

  28. Hi Jeri,
    I like the breaking habits of seeing exercise. I’ve been doing this for many years, observing the most minute details. One of my favorite things to look for are hidden patterns in everything and bringing them into the open. This has led to a ton of inspiration for my creative writing.I think it all comes down to the level of attention we give.

    Kind Regards,

    • Will, on most days I only give enough attention to things just to get by, but the best days are the ones I can really open myself up to observing all the tiny details around me, not in a critical way, but in an appreciative one.

  29. This is a great exercise it gives you a fresh eye and vision. I truly want to work on my creativity and this is a good way. Now I need to invest in a camera.

  30. This reminds me of the challenge to see things through the eyes of a child. Very interesting exercise. It’s surprising what comes from it.

    • Cheryl, sometimes our best observations come to us when we become childlike in our observations and put our preconceived notions to rest.

  31. Love the visualization….we really are visual, right? I would say that I too often am prompted by a picture…great excercise

    • Jacquie, visual exercises can be a writer’s best friend at times. Although I really like to put on instrumental music at times to see what sort of inspiration can come from that tactic as well.

    • Jacquie, visual exercises can be a writer’s best friend at times. Although I really like to put on instrumental music at times to see what sort of inspiration can come from that tactic as well.

  32. What a neat exercise. I love the idea of seeing an everyday object in a new way. I’d like to apply this approach to some of the concepts around my work that I take for granted. Force myself to look at them from new perspectives to see if they stand up to scrutiny or if I’ve just gotten used to “seeing” them a certain way.

    • Debra, familiarity really can be the enemy. It’s probably the main reason whey I like to travel so much and see new things.

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