Tools of the Trade

It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson: 2 Ways to Be a Better Observer


According to Barbara Baig, author of How to Be a Writer, writing depends on one thing: observation.  As Marcel Proust once said, “The voyage of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.”  Most of us go about our lives in a sort of stupor, only half aware of the physical reality around us.  If we are to replicate a world for our readers, we must learn to observe the minutiae of experience: the tone and quality of someone’s voice, the particular shade and intensity of the sky.  

How often will a less adept writer resort to describing a sunset as “beautiful”?  Too many times to count.  Why is this so bad?  Well, first off, “beautiful”— that bland, tirelessly applied adjective— conveys virtually nothing about the actual sunset: it only makes a value judgement.  Good writers avoid directly assessing the value of things, instead preferring to describe the thing precisely so as to allow the reader to decide for himself.  Rather than characterize a sunset as “beautiful,” he’d first outline its physical attributes: its various colors, its appearance against the sky.  

He might say: “The pink chiffon sunset melted into a summer dusk.”  

Or, “An erie autumn sun fell below the horizon as crows circled an elm tree’s bare branches.”  

Or he might speak more metaphorically, “The yellow orb looked like a giant flashlight illuminating a blood-orange sky.”

Notice how all three depictions a) conjure a very concrete, particular picture and b) resist making value judgements.  More importantly, notice how much more mesmerizing, how much more enthralling than the wearisome assertion that the sunset was “beautiful.”

But the question remains: if it’s so clear that the latter versions are superior, why is it that so many novice writers produce strings of sentences not much more inspired than the one above?

It is my guess that the answer lies in a lack of observation.  So many beginning writers compose dreadful, dull, vapid sentences not because they’re stupid or untalented but because they’re simply not observing closely enough.  “The sunset was beautiful” (and its million and one cringeworthy variants) is a symptom of sloppy observation.  To describe something strikingly and accurately the writer must approach his topic with the precision of a detective.  Like a detective who meticulously records every aspect of his case with a deep reverence for facts, the writer must search tirelessly for the exact words which will convey his intent.  

There are several things you can do to refine your observation skills and rejuvenate your prose:  

#1: pay attention to the sensory world

As writers, our task is to remind people what it is to be human.  Through all the senses that we embody, we seek to explore and re-create the experience of being alive on this earth.  And especially now, in our denatured times, we are in a position to give back the reader the sensual world-restore to him some fundamental which has been taken away from him, something he craves, the smells and textures of physical reality.”– Janet Fitch

It is the job of the writer to restore to the reader some part of his sensual world.  As Janet Fitch argues in her characteristically eloquent essay “Coming to Your Senses,” industrialization has alienated us from the solidness of lived experience.  Most of us exist in an oblivious torpor: we wake up, haphazardly drive to work only to spend the majority of our day in an artificially air-conditioned, monotonously beige or grey colored office without windows.  When we get home, we plop ourselves in front of the TV where we mindlessly indulge in yet another flavorless meal.  

As writers, we must reunite our reader with the pleasure of living through the senses.  But how?  Simple: we must reconnect with sensuous experience ourselves.  When was the last time you paused to notice the symphony of sounds around you?  to describe— in accurate detail— the colors of the sky at noon?  When was the last time you gave serious, thoughtful consideration to whether a summer breeze was “sultry” or “suffocating”?  whether a twilight sky was “indigo” or “cobalt blue”?

If we are to restore the world to our reader, we must find definite language in which to do so.  If all sunsets are “beautiful” and all skies are eternally a cheerful shade of “blue,” we conjure no lasting images for our reader.  Worse, we miss the satisfaction of fully living.  By naming the world truthfully in as specific and concrete terms as possible, the world becomes more evocative, more real to us.  We begin to live vividly.  But when we opt for the over-used word or timeworn cliché, our experience loses some of its sharpness.  At the end of the day, this is why we write: to ground ourselves in the world.

So the next time you find yourself in novel surroundings, think of it as an expedition of the senses.  Challenge yourself to pay attention.  Describe the sights, the sounds, the smells you encounter.  Record these observations in your writer’s notebook.

#2: carefully, painstakingly choose your words

As writers, words are all we have— we must be careful with them.  The next time you sit down to write, be attentive to your diction.  First and foremost, begin with nouns.  Is the house simply a “house” or is it a “mansion”?  a “cottage”?  a “bungalow”?  Each of these words has distinct denotative, not to mention connotative, meanings.  Choose the one that most accurately names your object. 

 Only after you’ve carefully detailed the specifics of person and place can you begin to think about adjectives and adverbs.  Writing, after all, is a house: nouns, its foundation, everything else, its pretty frill.  The good writer will use modifiers, not just for aesthetic effect, but to convey necessary meaning.  When selecting adjectives and adverbs—particularly when debating between synonyms— consider how you want to portray your object.  Is the house “charming” or “picturesque”?  The former suggests something delightful, attractive; the latter implies something more darling and quaint.  Good writers thoroughly consider such subtleties of words.  The result?  A polished final piece.

One thought on “It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson: 2 Ways to Be a Better Observer

  1. Pingback: Brenda Ueland on What Makes Writing Good – asia lenae

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