The Power and Danger of Observation

Filed in Ask the Editor, Writing Tips by on June 8, 2017 2 Comments

Writers continually take in the world around them, cataloguing sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. They observe their environment with deep curiosity and awe, recording the minutiae of the unique scenes that unfold around them every day. Watching a conversation between lovers, a mother scolding her child, or a man walking alone at night can become the building blocks of a great story.

But it’s easy for us as writers to overextend our power of observation as we write. Before we know it, we are stuffing each sentence and paragraph to the seams with moment-by-moment synopses, doggedly reporting every square inch of a scene. Unfortunately, this forces the reader to wade through a pea soup fog of detailed descriptions. The weight of recorded observation can crush readers, while the simplicity of a more skeletal portrayal is usually enough to enchant them.

So how do we expand our power of observation while moderating it?

Begin with an Observation Excursion—Then Edit It

Enjoy an outing of people watching at a park, mall, or restaurant. Keep an eye out for people interacting with each other: families, couples, and friends. Try to imagine what they’re saying to one another based on their motions and facial expressions. Let your imagination have free rein, and keep a small journal with you for recording details.

Later, as you go through your journal of observations, ask yourself the following questions before integrating the details into a scene:

  • What made you notice that particular person or scene in the first place?
  • What details grip your memory without you really knowing why?
  • Which details evoke an emotion or a memory from your own life?
  • How does this detail connect to the broader scope of your plot or characterization?

Even if you have a lot of material to choose from, these questions will help you choose the best options to use in your story. As you integrate the details into a scene, keep close watch to ensure that you don’t copy the people, places, and action that you observed verbatim. Hold out for just the one or two shining details that speak to. Use them as a starting point, allowing your own imagination to fill in the rest.

Limit Your Adjective Use

Comb through your pages and search for sentences that use two or more adjectives for a single item. Anything beyond this exponentially detracts from the power of each descriptive word, dragging down your reader’s mental wherewithal.

Remember, while you have creative license to craft your scenes as you see fit, you also want to invite your reader into the wonderful work of imagination. Let them take creative ownership over the story as well by imagining the shade of the heroine’s hair or the exact tone of her husband’s voice. Allowing the reader to create the story alongside you is vital for helping them bond with it.

Keep Paragraphs at a Manageable Length

Do you find that your paragraphs are swelling with extra descriptions of settings? Look through your manuscript for paragraphs that take up the entire page with their description of physical features, and put on your editor’s cap to weed them down. This will prevent you from trying to squeeze in every last detail of the living room, pushing you to focus on the conversation between the couple in the scene instead.

Balance Description with Action and Dialogue

If you’re writing fiction, a telltale sign of over-describing is the absence of dialogue between characters. If you find that it takes five pages in a chapter before you get to character interaction, you can safely assume that too much description and “telling” is taking place. Remember that your reader is more interested in the characters populating the scene than in the setting itself.

Even trying to describe a character’s backstory in too much detail can be counterproductive. While it’s helpful to get some contextual information, it’s far more enjoyable to watch the action unfold in the present than to get long descriptions of their past.

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About the Author ()

Amy brings experience from her work with the Minnesota Book Awards, Milkweed Editions, the University of Minnesota Press, Ivory Tower Magazine, and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Writing. Before joining Xulon Press in 2016, she marketed academic religion textbooks and reference resources with Fortress Press in Minneapolis. Amy’s love for books began at an early age, and she went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities with a BA in English literature with studies in technical writing. She enjoys creative nonfiction, poetry, contemporary fiction, and literary classics.

Comments (2)

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  1. avatar Be says:

    This was extremely informative. I mean extremely

    • avatar Amy Sleper says:

      We’re glad you found the article helpful, and we’re excited to see the writing that emerges from using these tips!

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