Want to be a better writer? Take out your headphones

If you’re anything like me, your headphones are a godsend when you’re in public, whether you’re running errands or just going for a walk.

But, if you’re also like me, you wear your headphones everywhere.

Here’s the bad news: you’re moving through life in an isolated bubble, and it’s a problem, because you’re missing out on a lot of cool stuff. I should know; I’m very guilty of this. (But I’m working on it, I swear.)

But here’s the good news: this problem is super easy to solve. Just leave the headphones at home! This tip will work wonders for your writing, especially if you want to write better dialogue.

Connect with your environment

how to write better dialogue

I’ve been studying mindfulness for about six months. I’m trying to more present, so when I went to the grocery store a few days ago, I didn’t take my phone or my headphones.

I expected my shopping trip to be no different than usual, but it was actually richer, almost rewarding.

I noticed the vibrant colors of the fruits stacked neatly on the shelves. I noticed how bright and well-organized the store was. I noticed other people moving in their own bubbles.

(Oh, and my trip took considerably less time because I wasn’t distracted.)

Eavesdrop and steal shamelessly

how to write better dialogue

Here’s why you shouldn’t wear headphones in public, though: you miss out on amazing dialogue and human interactions.

Let’s go back to the supermarket. When I walked up to the meat counter, I found the butcher, who was about to get off work, talking to a lady shopper. (Or, rather, talking at her and peppering his conversation with cuss words.)

She listened patiently, cradling her basket in the crook of her elbow, while he vented: “Fook this, fook that, fook her.” (I live in Ireland, and yes, they do pronounce it that way.)

I thought, That’s strange. He probably shouldn’t be talking to a customer that way, especially about someone else, while he’s still on the clock.

I inferred a few things from this brief interaction:

  • He knew the shopper personally.
  • The shopper knew the woman the man was ranting about, and agreed with what he said.
  • He probably wasn’t talking about a co-worker, since he didn’t bother keeping his voice down and didn’t care if other customers heard him.

While I didn’t know the context of that conversation, I replayed it again and again in my head. Who could he have been talking about? His girlfriend? A family member?

And who could he have been talking to? His sister? An old friend from school?

But then I thought, how many conversations like this have I missed because I was listening to music? How much of my life have I missed because I was locked up in my own head?

The importance of being present

the importance of being present

Good writers are keen observers. You might already be a keen observer, whether you wear headphones in public or not.

But here’s the thing: sight is just one sense. We’re not fully engaged in our environment unless all our senses are. (Within reason, of course; don’t go around licking people just for the “full” experience.)

I may never use the butcher’s conversation in a story, or think about him at all after this blog post is published.

But simply noticing that interaction, and being present for it, will work wonders for my writing.

Why? Because, if we want our characters to act and speak like real people, we need to study how real people act and speak.

If we want to build believable fictional worlds, we must be present in our own world and observe how it works.

Leave the headphones at home

I challenge you to be fully present the next time you go out.

Don’t distract yourself with music or your phone.

Don’t daydream or think about tomorrow’s to-do list.

Look up. Listen. Observe. Focus on what you’re doing right here, right now.

You never know what you might find, or how your discoveries will impact your writing, your mental health, and your life.

To learn more about mindfulness and how to be present, check out this free PDF of The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.

One comment Add yours
  1. Can’t agree with this enough. I have a little leather journal where I write observations – things people say, things people do – and it’s saved my butt whenever I’ve needed inspiration for a story! Music can be inspirational, and sometimes, it’s nice to lose yourself in your own world. But connecting with reality can help you see so much more. Fantastic post. Xx

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