Are you just traveling through your world passively, without really engaging, without really taking time to observe?
As a writer, fiction or non-fiction, it is your task to observe the world around you. Actively. Not passively.
Memory experts tell us that if you passively read, see, or hear things or people around you, the very most you will retain is about 30% or less. You are being acted upon, not acting.
If you actively observe and engage with your surroundings, you will be able to recall up to 90% of what has happened. For a writer, that is golden.
Most of us are not born with strong observation skills. Observing details is a learned ability that you can employ to greater or lesser degrees.
Learning to Observe
Granted, learning to observe is difficult in American society. When we are out in public, we tend not to look at each other. We value anonymity. I think everyone would agree, though, that it is great fun to sit in an outdoor café and just people-watch, not check your phone. How much of this experience do you really remember?
Three Things will increase Observation Skills
1. Pay attention to detail. Focus on the world outside of yourself. Look around you. See that lady standing by the bridge? What color is her dress? How do you interpret her mood? Is she waiting for someone or just thinking? Earrings? Shoes? What is her body language?
Now, as a writer, play the “what if” game:
What if she is waiting for a lover who never shows?
What if she has just lost her job and has no money?
What if she has just been offered a huge modeling contract? And so on.
Make up a story. Who cares if it is right IF you are satisfied with the scenario. Stretch your creativity through what you observe. Push yourself to WATCH.
2. Use your senses. Walk into a small restaurant which has fragrant aromas. Smell the spices, dinners, other diners, maybe even the tiny carnation in the vase on the table.
See what is on the walls, the people who are eating, the waiters bring out food. Hear the clash of silverware, tinkling of glassware, low conversation.
Touch the table in front of you, feel the coarseness of the artisan bread, the rough edge of your wool jacket. Taste the bite of garlic, the silkiness of crème brulee, the crunch of potato chips.
How does all of this sensual observation make you feel? Could you relay that feeling to a reader?
3. Keep a notebook of your observations. It doesn’t have to be formal. Just jot down ideas and impressions. If you write thoughts down, you can always refer back to them. Tactile motions (the act of writing) helps the brain to remember.
Observe to Write
As you can see, none of these exercises are onerous. Simply focus and notice. Very few of us are born with an eidetic mind. Perhaps that is good. We must work at our ability to see detail and read situations simply by practicing.
Take a few minutes away from your computer, and look at a rock or a flower or a tree in the yard. What are you seeing? Look for the details. By spending time observing, you are honing one of your best writing skills.