Without This Skill, You'll Never Write Well

Without This Skill, You'll Never Write Well

It's just that important: without this ability sunk deep into your daily habits and perceptions, without this skill coming as second nature in every aspect of your life, you'll never be a writer. You'll never write truthfully or specifically or well. You're dying to know what it is, aren't you?

It's the power of observation.

Sounds simple, right? But without this power, you're sunk. Every writer I've ever known began as an observer. It starts with looking at the world around you, and simply noticing things. The way the light shines through the leaves. The taste of mashed potatoes with too much garlic. The way your mother's eyebrows knit together when she's worried and relax apart when she's happy. The way that this happens and that happens. The detail, the detail, the detail, of being alive.

It sounds easy. But most people who think they are doing a pretty good job of observing are really just noticing the surface of things, the clichés. It's not our fault; it's a natural feature of our human brains to try to absorb as much as we can by making assumptions, and filling in data from our past experiences. So if we've seen a clown in the circus before, then we assume every clown looks the same. Red lips, red nose, flower in hat? That's how they all look. The cliché is a function of our brains; it's a kind of cognitive shorthand. But if we want our writing to feel vivid and unique, to feel fresh and new, we can't take any shortcuts. We need to go deeper with our observations.

That means observing the unusual and the unexpected.

How does this clown look different from other clowns? How does your mother's face look different from other mothers? What's that funny thing your family does that no other family does? It's tempting to notice the broad generalities. Snow in winter and green in spring, and so on. But your job as an observer is to notice what makes the moment unique. To notice what's never been noticed before. Look how the ice in winter encases each branch of the tree in a clear shining sleeve. Look how the cat twitches her tail while she drinks. These are the details that are going to make your writing feel real. It's possible to craft these details from scratch, using pure imagination, but it's so much easier to use the wide world in front of you as material. You've got to convince us that your fictional world is real, and you can do it by infusing it with real-world detail.

Look, listen, smell, touch, taste.

It's a cliché, I know, but without this skill, you're not going anywhere. You've got to use your senses - and not just when you're in writing mode. Writers succeed by never turning this power off. They're always looking around at things, noticing what's different, taking note of the detail. They're looking at what the world is like. And if you only rely on one sense, the world you create will still seem flat and one-note. Instead, you've got to create a symphony of sensory detail. When you're going about your daily routine, notice what chalkboard erasers feel like (soft and furry), what pencil erasers smell like (sharp, acrid, rubbery), what the tetherball sounds like as someone's punching it. These are the details that are going to make your writing stand out! The secret of great writing was around you all along! Who would've thought!

Be an emotional observer.

Being an astute observer doesn't just mean paying attention to your senses, however. There are other levels of observation you've got to cultivate. After all, if we only notice what our senses can detect, we will only be creating a physical portrait of the world, missing so many hidden layers. It's crucial that you become an emotional observer as well. Writers tend to have a high level of self-knowledge and empathy for others. That doesn't mean they're nicer than everybody else, but at least they're paying attention to how everybody else feels. How did your friend feel when you told that joke? Did everybody else think it was funny? What do you think your teacher is thinking right now? Your parents? Your brothers and sisters? Why are they thinking that? Is what you feel consistent with what others are feeling in this moment? Why is father hurt when your mother says that thing? Why did you choose to hurt your brother's feelings right then?

There's a whole universe of emotion out there, and most people wander blithely through it, doing the best they can but missing a lot. You must succeed where others fail to see; and it begins with the simple skill of observation. As an infant you started this process of looking around the world wide-eyed; too quickly you formed a small lexicon of what the world was and relied on it. Now you must look with the eyes of an infant again!