Memory for Details

Writers are observers. Any tiny thing we notice–a cracked sidewalk, a friend’s laugh, the contents of an old backpack–could be the starting point for a great piece of writing.

For most of us, however, it takes practice to become not only a keen observer, but also a writer capable of remembering and writing about the details.

This activity can help you build your skills, without having to do a lot of writing.

Become a better observer.
Use multiple senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste).
Improve your short-term memory for details.
Develop more precise descriptive language.

Timer: use your cellphone’s Clock app or a separate timer
Writing Implements: pencil and paper or computer/iPad
Writing Space: a desk, table or counter where it’s comfortable to work

First, you’ll view a scene, taking in all the details. Then leave the scene and list everything you can remember. Compare your list with the real life scene. How well did your descriptive list capture the details?

Try variations of this game to build your observational superpowers!

To do this activity:

  1. Choose a scene to observe. It could be a nearby room, a view out a window, or an outdoor space.
  2. Set up your writing materials and timer in your writing area.
  3. Set the timer for 5 minutes and start observing the scene. Get into the details–the people, things, plants, animals, colors, textures, and sounds.
  4. Return to your writing space and start listing everything you can remember. Do not write sentences. Phrases of 2-8 words are best.
  5. After 15 minutes, go back to the scene and see how your list compares with reality.


Build Memory Muscles: Repeat the activity for multiple days or weeks. Which details did you find important? Which ones did you miss? Are your powers of observation and memory improving?

Group Game: Try this activity with friends and family for some competitive fun. How many items did you each remember? How did your observations differ? Which list created the most complete picture of the scene?

Make It Easier: If it’s too hard to remember anything from the scene, try using a notebook or digital device to take notes while you view the scene. How quickly and accurately can you capture the details in your notes?

Descriptive Power: While listing items from the scene, include descriptive words (for example, not just “fire hydrant” but “bright red fire hydrant with chipping paint”). Open and hunt for synonyms to be even more precise.

Memory Tray: Instead of observing an entire scene, recruit a friend or family member to put together a tray of office supplies, kitchen utensils, or other household items, which they cover with a towel. Pull off the towel and observe the objects for 5 minutes. Recover the tray and list everything you can remember. Afterwards, compare your list to the tray. How’d you do?

YouTube Video: Instead of observing an actual nearby scene, play a YouTube video and try to list everything that happened during it.

Neighborhood Walk: Instead of observing a single scene, take a walk around the block, through the neighborhood, or down the road. Look for signs of the season, plants or animals, and human activity. Back home, make your observational list, then do another neighborhood walk through to see how you did. Repeat daily. What has changed each day? What stayed the same? What did you notice on day three that you never saw on day one?

Pro Level: Instead of listing what you see, try writing a descriptive paragraph about the scene, from memory.

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