Writing And The Art of Observation

    The Writer As Observer

Learning to be observant is a valuable life skill.

So keeping a writer’s notebook requires all writers to develop keen observational abilities. In this way the writer begins to more notice things in the world around them more acutely. The writer begins to collect sensory observations to inform their writing efforts.

To help student writers to develop greater awareness of how writers capture sensory observations you could:
   Share some text examples where the writer includes sensory details. Details that enable the reader to visualize the scene.
   Share an example from your own notebook where you have focused on what’s around you. Consider your 5 senses. Your writing is a snapshot of the world around you.
'I notice as a father walks in the damp sand close to the shoreline. His young son follows closely behind. He stretches to place his feet within his father’s substantial footprints. This scene is a strong metaphor for father and son relationships. It also prompts me to think of the role of the teacher in the classroom –leading so that others may follow in their steps…'   
From my notebook 

When we write about characters we need to explore the physical terrain of that character. It is often helpful to think about this character in terms of the senses. I often share examples from my own writing to emphasize how as a writer I try to incorporate such devices. Here are a few I found:

Touch: 'When I shook my father’s hand, it felt as firm as the wood he had worked with all those years.'

Sound: 'I listened to my mother’s singing as she ironed and I played with my cars at her feet. The hissing of the iron provided an accompaniment to her questionable melodies. She sang joyfully, like the birds of the morning.'

Smell: 'On laundry day my mother whenever my mother gave me a hug, I was enveloped in the unmistakable smell of Velvet soap. It was so pervasive, I had to rub my nose.'

Sight: 'When she smoked, she drew the terrible smoke into her lungs, slowly titled her head back and exhaled towards the sky. She could have been a dragon caught in a daydream.'

Taste: 'When I kissed my father good night, I could taste the saltiness of sweat on his cheek from a hard day's work.'

Using the Senses

When developing writers write about familiar scenes they often have trouble describing that scene with sufficient clarity. They may not realize that the words on the page do not provide enough information for the reader to form a clear image of the setting. 

They forget that the reader may not be as familiar with the setting as they are. In such instances it is useful to request that the writer ‘develop’ the scene using the five senses to build the image the reader needs.

The aim is to assist young writers to notice sensory details and develop the habit of writing them down when using their writer’s notebooks.

Ask questions about the use of sensory details when conferring:

Which senses did you use when you wrote this piece?

What other details could you add that involve the senses?

Example of text strong in sensory observation

‘The red girl and I stood under the guava tree looking each other up and down. What a beautiful thing I saw standing before me. Her face was big and round and red, like a moon –a red moon. She had big, broad, flat feet and they were naked to the bare ground: her dress was dirty, the skirt and blouse tearing away from each other at one side; the red hair that I had seen standing up on her head was matted and tangled; her hands big and fat, and her fingernails held at least ten anthills of dirt under them. And on top of that, she had such an unbelievable, wonderful smell, as if she had never taken a bath in her whole life.'

Source:  'Annie John' by Jamaica Kincaid


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