How to write better by exercising your observation skills

One of the most important skills for writing isn’t exercised on the computer but simply by observing people in real life. The tips in this article complement the curriculum of the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.

Walk. Photo by: Robert S. Donovan

WE WERE WAITING for the light to change at the intersection of Green Lake Drive and Wallingford. There were no cars, no traffic in either direction, but we still waited. It seemed dumb. I would’ve gone but I was with Lau and Layla.

There was a kid, maybe 25, standing next to us too. He wore paint-splattered Carharts and a t-shirt. He had one of those triangular-shaped pizza boxes that holds a single slice. I wondered why he didn’t go.

The kid didn’t seem to notice that Layla was asleep–or almost asleep–in Lau’s baby sling. When he started talking I could feel my face twisting into a look that was like ‘come on dude, can’t you see we’re trying to walk this baby to sleep.’

“This intersection is usually pretty safe,” he said. He said it loudly and in this tone that seemed to assume we weren’t locals, which seemed strange. Then he said, “But it’s good to be cautious. It’s a Saturday night, you never know.”

“Yeah man, you’re right,” I said.

The light changed and we crossed, leaving him as we turned up the hill. “Why did you answer him like that?” Lau said.

“I dunno. Was I being rude? Couldn’t he see that we were trying to walk Layla to sleep.”

“You don’t think like that until you’re a parent,” Lau said. “Besides, he was probably alone and just wanted to talk to somebody. Didn’t you see that little pizza box? He was going back home to eat by himself.”

Becoming a Better Observer

The lesson here is that while I just quickly ‘scanned’ this kid, talked to him for a second, and then walked on, Lau had, in the same amount of time, picked up on certain details and was able to make observations and connections. Which brings me to the point: if you only see people on the surface, chances are that what you write about people will be superficial as well.

For writers then, learning to observe more closely–let’s call it active observation–means everything.

Active Observation

What we hear by accident often has more credibility than what is said to us directly.
Ann Beattie

Active observation is trying to see the connections between what’s visible in someone (their expressions, clothes, what they’re doing) and invisible (their histories, upbringing, dreams, desires). This is key, because within the gap between what’s visible and invisible is often where the deepest, most credible, and most interesting stories are found.

Exercising Your Observation Skills

My wife Lau is a natural when it comes to listening and observing, but she’s also had training, both as a journalist and in film production. When we talked about this–how to become a better observer–she specifically mentioned 3 exercises.

Excercise # 1: Stories out of Photos

This exercise is more fun to do with a partner or in a group, but you can also do it yourself. Basically just find a photo with at least two people in it. Spend 10 minutes observing every detail in the photo and writing them down. Then spend 15 minutes writing a short paragraph or story on these two people, what they’re doing, what their relationship is.

Once you’ve written the story, an interesting follow-up is to go back sentence by sentence and question why you thought the way you did. This can lead to interesting discoveries about the way you think, or certain prejudices you might have that you weren’t aware of.

Excercise # 2: Analyzing how Relationships are Expressed in Film

Even before people begin talking, how is it that we ‘know’ the relationship between them?

Recently I alluded to studying scenes in film as a tool for narrative essay writing. Because movie scenes utilize specific visual cues to help show relationships between people, you can build observation skills simply by studying the way scenes are put together. The key is to look at them not as you typically would, but actively observing each detail and asking yourself:

  • Why did the director choose to include this?
  • How does this detail show relationships between the characters?
  • What is being left out of the scene, and how does this affect our perception of the characters?

Excercise # 3: Active Observation in Daily Life

Once you’ve practiced with pictures and movies, move to active observation in real life. Bring a notebook with you. Good places to observe can be found anywhere. As you watch how people interact, note every detail you can, especially things that point to deeper stories, such as:

  • Is their body language in contrast with what they’re saying?
  • Are they listening to one another or just ‘talking over’ each other?
  • Do they seem comfortable or uncomfortable in the situation?

Once you’ve taken notes, follow up with a story and then challenge yourself on what you wrote by asking why to each observation, similar to exercise 1.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the people you’re looking at are just that–real people. While you can empathize, you can never truly know what they’re feeling. Remember that when you’re writing. Observations and assumptions are very different things.

*Learn more about how to become a travel writer — check out the MatadorU Travel Writing course.

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    Great post and so true. I love to people watch. I often wonder what they’re thinking (it’s probably better that I don’t know this), where are they going, etc…Many people tend to judge others and judge them by their appearance. You may make assumptions about others, but later find out that they’re a multi-millionaire or editor-in-chief of a publication. You never know…I wouldn’t be too quick to judge…Better yet, don’t judge people at all :)

  • Eman

    This is great. Thanks for the article.

    I love coming up with stories based on pictures, or watching people interact. It gets the mind going.


  • joshywashington

    living in the heart of Seattle, people watching is a daily ritual. It helps me wake up into the city that is teeming around me, and the person I am in that soup of humanity. To be a fly on the wall is to watch the story of the city has it unfolds…
    Great article David, I am going out to sit on a park bench now…

  • Sarah

    Hey David–

    I love that anecdote about the pizza box. I think sometimes it takes getting out of your head to be able to really observe–taking long walks is my preferred method. I walk for a few hours, just roaming, with no plan, and in the first hour I’m trying to see and straining too much to make sense of things. But in the last hour these little unexpected observations creep in, and THAT’S when I really start to see. For me it takes getting into a particular state of mind, just seeing without thinking or trying to think so much. At least in my opinion.

    I also think one of the greatest things about traveling is the ability to get a thrill out of observing the most minute details of daily life. I love taking the subway here in Japan because there’s just so much to take in, and I can find the ad for octopus balls and the girls sleeping on each other across from me fascinating. It’s amazing how much you can intuit just by getting into that observation mode.

    • David Miller

      Thanks for the bigups Sarah. I totally agree with you on traveling being an antidote for getting stuck in your own head, and also the idea that it takes a while to fully disengage.

      For me it’s always been bus rides in Buenos Aires. Feeling slightly jealous of Japanese subway rides.

  • Nomadic Matt

    great tips

  • Hal

    Loved this, especially the opening story and the film clip you included. My thanks to Lau!

  • SSaraiya

    This is a great post! The pizza box observation is beautiful! It reminds us that as writers, we must start thinking beyond ourselves and get into the other person’s shoe instead. When ordinary people might think, “why doesn’t he understand me”, a writer must FEEL the other person and UNDERSTAND why he doesn’t understand!

  • gina

    invaluable advice. i’m about to attempt exercise #1. can’t wait to know more about the matador U

  • Nancy

    word up. Great advice.

    • david miller

      Thanks Nancy.

  • http://link Gangster24

    When this house of cards falls so will the status quo politicians of our day. ,

  • Abbie

    Just found this article – but GREAT advice! Noticing and writing about details is something I really need to work on, so there are some suggestions that I will definitely try out!