Saturday Writing Tip: Observation

Binoculars_glasses_glass_261717_lI often talk about the benefits of being present, quiet and mindful–not only as a way to focus on your writing, but when you're out and about in the world, so that you can observe things in order to write about them.

(Brief aside: I'm typing with one of my fingers bandaged after slicing it while cutting green onions for a salad the other night, so excuse any wonkiness I miss.)

I discussed this topic the other night in my novel writing class, and the next morning in my journal I found myself spontaneously giving myself an assignment.  It's an observation assignment, and I thought you might want to do it, too.  So here goes.

The idea is to be present, alert and mindful throughout your daily life and then write what you've observed later, that night or the next morning.  The act of writing your observations down hones your observing skills.

Every session, look back over the day and write two things:

1.  Dialogue.  Any memorable lines from the previous day?  Who said something interesting?  Can you get the words down exactly as they were uttered? 

2.  An event or description.  This can be a big event, such as winning the lottery, or a small moment, like a description of someone bending down to tie their shoes.  You can also describe the sunset or the rocks you noticed on your walk–anything that caught your attention.

The idea here is to remember as vividly as possible what happened, not write it in a gorgeous literary way, because we're working on the art of observation. 

I must confess, when I started doing this, I was shocked–shocked–at how little I remembered specific details from the previous day.  I recalled things in broad strokes, but I want to be the kind of writer that remembers the telling detail, that one tiny little action that illuminates everything. The first few days, I've ended up writing down the most prosaic of lines of dialogue (all that I remember) on the theory that eventually I'll get better at remembering the good stuff.  And I'm using this observation exercise to get there. I'll let you know how it progresses.

Are you an observer?  How do you teach yourself to recall events in detail?

Need some help translating your observations to a writing practice?  I've got a couple slots open in my coaching.  Head on over to my coaching page for more information.

Photo by Gastonmag.

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12 Comments on "Saturday Writing Tip: Observation"

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08/19/2012 08:00

Good points Charlotte, but not all that easy for me to implement because I have one of those scattered type of brains, but I can see how practicing these points good pay off big in the future, so here goes… starting to today I’m going to try not to forget to remember what I shouldn’t forget to remember!!! Yesterday, I remember a group of us found this cute little bugger (caterpillar). It was white and fuzzy-all-over. Gorgeous little fellow he was (or was he a she?) too, as his white-and-black-spotted colors highlighted the old, gray and streaked wood of the… Read more »

08/19/2012 08:16

Great ideas, Charlotte. I’m going to be more conscious of this myself, starting from right after this blog comment (I’ll be journaling). I am an observer. Like many writers, when I’m out in public I have to find ways to stare at people that doesn’t draw attention to my staring. I can sit in a restaurant, coffeehouse, etc. and get totally lost in wondering about the motivations or personal life of that fascinating person who caught my eye, and thinking what a good character they would make. I know what you mean about the shock of not being able to… Read more »


I really LIKE this! I’m going to try it out. Thanks so much.

08/19/2012 14:50

Oh Don, thank you for sharing this observation!  It's great–you got so many details in and made that tiny little experience really interesting.  I'm so glad the exercise turned out to be helpful, even though you were dubious about it to start.

08/19/2012 14:54

Milli, you really nailed it for me, too, when you said you make an emotional judgment or form an emotional observation, but then can't fill in the details.  I think that's exactly what happens.  And you're correct–this is a time for the left-brain to come in! As for the cut, I was chopping green onions for a salad with tomatoes and olive oil.  My son-in-law had sharpened all my knives and I'd just reminded myself to be careful.  And then I sliced my finger open.  Do you think that implies a lack of mindfulness as I chopped?  Or an aversion… Read more »

08/19/2012 14:55

Hope its helpful–I've been finding it so.

08/20/2012 13:12

Hi Charlotte,
Thanks for offering more great writing tips in this one. I recently discovered I’m writing down more details since doing ‘Morning Pages’ regularly. Funny thing is, I only realized this was happening after going back last week and reading a few entries from a few months ago. Here I thought I was just dumping a litany of ‘wah wah’ or mundane and not leaving behind anything insightful, something I might be able to develop further or use in a WIP! 😀

Yowsa, take care of that finger. I’m just relieved to hear you didn’t slice it in half.

08/20/2012 14:04

That's really interesting about what you've discovered about using more detail in morning pages, Carole Jane.  I've been doing them every morning again and I find I feel so much more connected to the world and my creativity.  I'll have to look back at the level of detail, but I bet its a natural outgrowth.  And thanks for the condolences on my injury.  I'll be glad to have this finger back to normal!

08/21/2012 04:43

I don’t do a lot of “intentional” observing. Like everyone, I have life events that are burned in my brain. Every detail is there–in stone. But then I am often the protagonist. What you suggest will enrich the scene and the supporting cast. Good stuff.

08/21/2012 07:45

Thanks, J.D.!

08/21/2012 08:14

Good strategy. I’m going to share it with writing friends.

08/21/2012 09:35

Thanks so much, Alan!