June 12, 2009

Writing about observations

Observing is essential to good writing. Whether you are writing in a journal, doing a laboratory report for a science class, dashing off a memo at work, or writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, keen observation is essential. Writing or verbalizing what you see helps you discover and learn more about your environment. Sometimes your purpose is limited to yourself: You observe and record to help you understand your world or yourself better. At other times, your purpose extends to a wider audience: You want to share what you have learned with others, to help them learn as well. No matter who your audience is or what your subject may be, however, your task is to see and to help your readers see.

Of course, observing involves more than just "seeing." Good writers draw on all their senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing. In addition, however, experienced writers also notice what is absent, or not there. The smell of food that should be coming from the kitchen but isn't. A friend who usually is present but now is absent. The absolute quiet in the air that precedes an impending storm. Writers should also look for changes in their subject — from light to dark, from rough to smooth, from bitter to sweet, or from noise to sudden silence. Good writers learn to use their previous experience and their imagination to draw comparisons and create images. Does a sea urchin look and feel like a pincushion with the pins stuck in the wrong way? Does the room feel as cramped and airless as the inside of a microwave oven? Finally, good writers write from a specific point of view or role: a student describing basic laws of physics or an experienced worker in a mental health clinic describing the clientele.

Depending on the purpose and the audience, writing from observation can be relatively objective, as when you record what is actually, demonstrably there; or it can be more subjective, as when you suggest how you feel, think, or react to a subject. A writer might describe a bicycle objectively as "a secondhand 1984 blue 10-speed Trek, with a 23-inch frame, 27-inch wheels, a Sun Tour DL deranleur, SR crank, and Dia Compe brakes." A writer might need to communicate that objective information to a prospective buyer or an employee in a cycle repair shop. On the other hand, the writer may wish to communicate the bicycle's subjective feel — how easily it pedals or how it flows like water down the street. In most situations, however, good writers describe their subject both objectively and subjectively. They use some objectivity for accuracy and specific detail and some subjectivity to suggest the value or relevance of the subject in a human environment.

The key to effective observing is to show your reader the person, place, event, or object through specific detail. Good description allows the reader to draw general conclusions based on specific detail. Rather than just telling a reader, "This bicycle has good technical components," the writer should show or describe how it feels as she rides it. If your reader is going to learn from your observations, you need to give the exact details that you learned from, not just your conclusions or generalizations. Even in writing, experience is the best teacher, so use specific details to communicate the feel, the data, the sights and sounds and smells. Whether you are a tourist describing the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, a salesperson analyzing consumer preferences for your boss, a physicist presenting data on a new supercon¬ducting material to other physicists, or a social worker putting together the details of a child abuse case, your first task is to recreate the experience, to show your readers, to make them see.