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In previous articles, I’ve waxed on about the importance of including specifics in your stories. To review, briefly…

Don’t say a place is hot. Say it’s 96 degrees.

Don’t say a hotel is nicely appointed. Say two terry robes hang in the closet… next to the Bose CD player on the desk sits a stack of CDs to choose from… green-tea scented bath salts on the bathroom counter are tied into little bundles with cranberry-colored ribbons…

It’s through those specific details that a rich story emerges. And editors like that.

[For more on how to do this in your own articles, see our archives;

How to Trash the “Travel Speak” and Write Descriptions that Sell

Avoid Words like Remote, Quaint, and Cozy and Write Better Descriptions

The Importance of Specific Detail: How to Write Descriptions That Mark You As a Pro]

How do you find — and remember — those details to include? Well…

I always tote along with me on assignment a notebook and pen. I don’t consider them mere props. I mean, I really do write down my observations. No matter how much I think I’ll remember, it’s never as much as I need when I sit down to flesh out a story. I rely on my notes.

That said, sometimes writing things down just isn’t an option… if I’m snorkeling, for example. Or if I’m traveling with kids. You try writing notes on a trans-Atlantic flight with a lap child on your knees and a paying child leaning heavily into your right side.

YOU HAVE TO THINK LIKE A SPY

Over the years, I’ve trained myself to do something that may seem rather whacky… but I’ll go to my grave swearing that it makes me notice more… and remember more, too.

I call it my “spy technique.” (You know those silver-screen secret agents… they always notice some little thing you, the average viewer, don’t find remarkable. And it’s that item they use to escape from some impossible situation.)

Like those spies, I try to very quickly — and very concretely — assess a situation. I don’t just take a casual look around. I make a mental list of everything I see.

Here’s what I mean:

As soon as you arrive somewhere — in a situation you want to remember in very specific terms — take stock of what you see, using words (which you keep to yourself, uttering only inside your own head, lest passers-by take you for schizophrenic).

Say you’re hiking, and you get to an outcropping where you stop for a break. Survey the scene, left-to-right, cataloging what you see: “Three distant peaks, snow down to tree line. Closer in, dense evergreens and two patches of meadow, lighter green. In the foreground down below where we’re standing, a pond with a trail around it. A couple of hikers on it — a male and female — the only others we’ve seen today. One hawk circling overhead.”

I know, I know… it sounds sort of insane. But it really does work. You start to notice things your eyes would have simply skimmed over before.

And this comes in handy not only when you’re looking for details to include in your articles, but also when you’re framing photos.

In last week’s issue, B. Howard said the best photographers are observant ones — those who notice the trash bag on the beach or the dead flowers in the foreground — details that could spoil an otherwise perfectly good shot.

If you make a habit of really cataloging what you see — using words — you’ll be surprised at how much more you notice.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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