Teaching Young Writers To Closely Observe Their World

One morning I followed the lead of Keri Smith in her book, ‘How to be an Explorer of the World’ and set out for a morning walk with the words Everything is interesting, look closer’ singing in my ears. My walking project was to take photos only of things found on the ground. Using my Iphone I walked my usual route, pausing to snap items that caught my eye. 

Off to observe the world

Since the age of about ten I have loved the wonder of photography. As a teacher and a writer, this love of the photographic image has been a positive influence. I believe it has aided my eye as a writer. Small detail is important. You train your writing eye to do exactly what your photographic eye must do. What a camera captures can also be captured inside your head.

As teachers of writing we need to be collectors. We must observe, collect and analyse. This documentation of specific elements of our world, our culture, through varied forms of research, forms a large part of our life-source as writers.

I also collect to enable me to remember. Sometimes I collect things initially presenting as meaningless or trivial, however the reflective process of writing often leads me back to an important realization or wider connection. I become better informed as a writer.

To have students grow into close observers of their world, we must lead them into new territories and methods of investigation. So, when I step out, I find myself acutely focused. 

Cicada casing on a wall

The images I capture on my walks become potential writing topics and ideas. They assist me to achieve the vital link to new ideas. 

When I take such action it sets me to thinking about my next project. Maybe, the next focus (pardon the pun) could be, ‘things on walls.’ That might be fun to explore. The images I collect frequently go into my notebook. They will inform me as a writer. Anything can be a starting place for a new writing piece…

Teaching students to be keen observers is not only critical to their writing development, but has implications for developing their world knowledge. This knowledge needs to incorporate meaning and understanding rather than mere surface knowledge. 

Surfaces in my own garden

If we want our students to notice things they encounter in their world, we must actively teach into it. They are part of an acutely visual generation. They are bombarded with images. -So many in fact that the task of determining importance becomes even more difficult. Learning to filter the meaningful from the mush is critically important. The continuing challenge for teachers is, how do we assist young writers to develop as discriminating viewers of their world? 

Scenes through windows

Developing a writer’s keen eye for observation will serve them well in a media saturated world. The more we notice, the more we chip away at our individual ignorance. 

A large part of writing is related to close observation of the physical environment in which the writer operates. Such observation works best if the observer is not pre-occupied with other matters.

Scenes around my immediate neighbourhood

Sometimes it requires self-talk to refocus the energies on the immediate surrounds and de-clutter our minds. We must learn to observe consciously. This is a skill acquired through repeated, mindful practice.

Ralph Fletcher encourages writers to push beyond the sight of things and look at other less glamorous senses such as; smell, taste and touch when making observations. Ralph further reminds us that it’s equally important to write with our ears as it is to write with our eyes and our minds. All this is great advice.
This close observation is akin to eavesdropping. The writer listens for snatches of conversation. -On the train, at the park in a shop, -snatches of conversation float in the air awaiting capture.  I love this harvesting of words that float on the air around me. I remain alert in a sea of talk. The writer also notices simple behaviours –quirky, bizarre, or ‘normal’ and records them. 

On a Brooklyn bus one morning I overheard this snatch of conversation, 'When I grow up, I want to be a reporter and get my photo on the side of a bus for no particular reason.'

I heard this gem in a New York bar, 'You can’t just sit there and drink yourself into Bolivia!'

While sitting in a school staff-room I heard, 'The kids drink that blue juice and it’s so full of sugar- We’re the ones who should be drinking it- then we could keep up with them.'

The writer notes the unspectacular and draws attention to it. ‘He tugged gently at his beard as if to ensure it was secure.’ These words emerged as I watched a bearded diner in a cafĂ©.

Look at small things. Remember a piece of writing is about something. That doesn’t mean the subject needs to be grandiose. “My sister turned and left the room without saying a word- that’s a story. -Particularly if your sister is not known for silent departures. 

Learn to breathe in the world, wherever you happen to be- in bed, under a tree, in your local coffee haunt, at the airport. It’s good to write in different places. It takes you away from the usual distractions of the house and re-attaches you to the wider physical world. 

'You train yourself to notice the details around you. Use all your senses...'
Ralph Fletcher, A Writer's Notebook, Unlocking The Writer Within

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