How Observation Can Improve Your Writing


How Observation Can Improve Your Writing

Countless books, articles, and study guides have been written on the topic of improving your writing. One important element most of these resources don't discuss, however, is the power of observation. And if they do, it's only an obligatory mention.

(That’s right: observation is often overlooked. The irony!)

Being observant is a real skill – a talent that can and should be honed. It’s especially important to writers of literary fiction and nonfiction, where dialogue, character development, and setting are often greatly enhanced through careful observation.

Here’s how to hone this useful skill:

Getting Started

First thing’s first: how do you go about improving your observation skills? Well, the same way you learn how to drive: practice! This means you intentionally accept the challenge of honing your observation skills and practice these skills on a daily basis. It is that simple.

Before you embark on your quest for improved observation skills, you need some basic tools in your toolbox. The good news is you probably have them already at your disposal.

You will need a pen or pencil, a small notebook (one you can easily carry in your pocket or purse), and a loose-leaf binder filled with lined and unlined paper. The small notebook and writing instrument you will carry with you at all times – whether you're shopping or watching TV, out for a walk or out to dinner. The binder filled with paper will serve as your Writer's Notebook – more on that later.

Adjusting Your Focus

You’ve got your tools at the ready; let’s now adjust your focus to a tighter shot. Instead of seeing the forest, start examining the individual trees.

For example, make some time to ask yourself about the house you pass on the way to work, the one with the overgrown yard. Why is it in need of maintenance? Or look for an odd item hidden in the weeds. Is that rusted antique tricycle a clue to a bigger mystery? Are the owners facing foreclosure, or is something more sinister afoot?

Another way to adjust your focus is to take up people-watching. Go to a nearby mall, restaurant, movie theater, or coffeehouse; take out your handy notebook and start writing down what you see. Is the couple arguing in front of the bookstore married? Has she caught him stepping out? Very inconspicuously, record their conversation and gestures. Make sure you make note of their dress and any physical characteristics that you find striking (hair colour, body type, style, and so on).

Cataloging your impressions can create a treasure trove of observations about how people interact with places, spaces, and each other.

Staying Vigilant

You must continually be on the lookout for details and oddities that will provide the necessary inspiration for your writing. While you're reading a book, watching television, or shopping at the market, try to capture the bits and pieces of conversation, writing, advertisements, or quips that tickle your fancy or trigger other emotional responses such as anxiety, fear, or joy.

These little morsels will be the seeds of future inspiration, which is why you need to keep your notebook on hand at all times.

The Writer’s Notebook

Your Writer's Notebook is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Everyday, or at least every other day, review the information in your notebook and transcribe it in your binder (a.k.a. your Writer's Notebook). Do not be afraid to discard any information that has lost its appeal. A good idea is to keep a shoebox for storing the discarded pages and old notebooks. You never know when writer’s block will rear its ugly head!

Your Writer's Notebook is a great place to record your creative ideas. Document your story thoughts, character outlines, spur of the moment epigrams, poetry, sketches or maps (unlined paper is outstanding for this), and plots. However, this is not a place to chronicle your day-to-day activities or complaints regarding your spouse, parent, or coworker – that's what a diary is for. Keeping a diary is therapeutic and, therefore, a worthwhile undertaking, just maintain one independently.


The artistic pursuit of writing is an intensive venture; to be a writer, you must read vigorously and write daily. In addition, you will continually struggle with capability and mechanics, no matter your level of success or experience. However, if you follow the above advice to develop your observational muscles, document the world around you, and maintain your Writer's Notebook, you can spend your time writingnot starving for inspiration or waiting for your muse.

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