The Power of Keen Observation: A Writing Workout

From Chapter 3 of The Writer’s Jungle

Aren’t you tired of being told to look at, feel, taste, listen to and smell when writing description? Nearly every writing workbook teaches that good writing includes the exploration of the senses. Still, most kids only enter into their senses halfheartedly when they write. They settle for lukewarm terms like “blue” or “smells nice.”

Real writers (the ones that get paid for it) use their senses too. But their approach to their subject is more intimate. They get up close and ask themselves probing questions. They select their words that detail their observations with the full intent of creating a mood or atmosphere for their piece.

The following exercise is designed to take you and your kids into a deeper relationship with an object. Keen observation is one of the innate skills of a good writer. Stay tuned for more help with writing so that your kids can write the way a writer thinks.

Directions: Begin by reading through all the instructions before writing. Read these with your children. Once you have read them through, select an item to observe. I have chosen to write the directions directly to your kids.

  • Start with a complex object (piece of unusual fruit, pine cone, origami colored paper, musical instrument, a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows floating on top, bottle of perfume). Set it on the table.

  • Using the five senses, investigate your object by writing down words (or have your mom write your words down, or tape record yourself) that represent your experience in each of these categories. Ask your mom to read these questions to you or you can read them to yourself as you write down your impressions. There is no magic formula here. I expect that you will follow your own tangents and create follow-up questions of your own. Moms can help you write things down if that makes it easier for you to observe and comment.

  • List all of the colors that you see. Go slowly. Don’t label the color before really looking. You will see that this object is not just “brown” but may be mahogany and gold from one angle and the color of dull metal from another angle. Get out your 64 color box of crayons if you need help coming up with names for shades of color. Compare your item to the colors of the crayons. Identify which part of the object is which color. Do the colors influence each other? Do the colors separate when viewed up close but blend together from a distance? Does the lighting affect the color? What happens if you look at the object outside? Are there colors within the colors? Do you see hints of yellow next to the surface reds? Look at the contours or edges of the object. Is the edge of the marshmallow in the hot chocolate a different color than the edge that is in the air?

  • Look at different components of the object. Get right next to what you are looking at. Pick it up if you need to. Examine it like a scientist. Are the parts large or small? How do they fit together? What holds them together? Are the edges jagged or smooth? What shapes are created by the edges? What shape is the object when viewed from above? From below? At eye level? From each side? Can the pieces be taken apart? Can you cut it open with a knife? Can you tear it apart? Does is screw or unscrew? Can it be folded? What can be done to your object that I haven’t mentioned? What would you like to do to it?

  • Now that your object is in your hand, describe the textures. Finger all the parts. Go beyond the words smooth and rough. What does the texture remind you of? If the texture reminds you of something you currently own, go get that thing and feel it. Then compare and see if you were right. In what ways are they the same? In what ways are they different? Can you think of other related experiences you’ve had? Touch every part slowly and talk the entire time comparing and contrasting one part to another.

  • Take the object and rub it against your forearm. Does this experience change the feelings you have about the texture? What does it feel like? How about rubbing it against your cheek? Against your neck?

  • Set the object down. Close your eyes and smell it. Go slowly. Breathe in several times. Now imagine you are in this room for the first time and you smell that scent. What feelings does it conjure? Do you feel comforted or troubled? Does the scent provoke a memory? Write it all down. Does your nose sting or tickle? If there is no scent or fragrance, move on.

  • Listen to your object. If it doesn’t make any noise by its nature (perfume bottles don’t sing), clank it against something. What happens to a piece of fruit when it’s dropped on a table? What sound do you hear if you crush a piece of origami paper? Play the musical instrument. Listen to it. Describe the sounds by comparing them to another experience. Close your eyes and think for a few moments. Imagine hearing that music. Then think of a time that you heard it before and the way it felt in your body to hear those sounds. Is today different? Why? Try playing it correctly and incorrectly for different effects. For hot chocolate, you might listen to yourself when you slurp it.

  • Lastly, taste your object. For items that aren’t edible, you can skip this part. For those that are, start by letting the food rest on the tip of your tongue. Then swallow. Now put part of it on the sides of your tongue. Then swallow. Compare the flavors. Taste the outer skin of the fruit. Then taste the seeds. Eat a big all-encompassing bite. Then eat small bites of each different part�the skin, the pulp, the seeds. Can you think of other flavors that are similar? Is one part of the fruit bitter and one sweet? For the hot chocolate, taste the marshmallows that are soaked with chocolate then taste one that isn’t. Compare. Use lots of words to describe the differences. Sip the chocolate and describe the feelings as it slides down your throat. Does the flavor linger in your mouth or disappear quickly? Is one sip enough or do you now crave more? Is the drink entirely sweet or also a little bit bitter?

Once these experiences are recorded in note form or on a tape recorder, type them up (or ask mom to type them). They don’t need to be in any shape or form—just a random listing of all the images, descriptive terms and ideas that were stimulated by observation.

Back to mom: Read the list together (mom and child). Some kids want to do this right away. Some prefer a break and benefit from waiting a day. Show them all the encouraging words they produced. Notice the amount of creativity your kids have in them already. Be aware of the level of intimacy created through thorough investigation.

If this experience was enjoyable, do it again with another object. Emphasize finding the best and most accurate word for each description. When choosing to turn these observations into some kind of writing form, keep the notes with your child at the table. Allow him to “cheat” by literally copying words, images and ideas off the notes.

By the way: This process is deceptive because it seems like your young writers are only learning how to do descriptive writing. How will this exercise relate to academic or expository writing? Trust me. It does. Here’s how: When a person learns how to see detail in a concrete object, he is actually developing a skill that teaches him to notice complexity and relationship as well as how to investigate thoroughly.

Most academic subjects are abstract. Yet they require the same level of intimacy with the subject matter as this exercise produces. To investigate a subject deeply means seeing it from various angles, in differing lights, using all the power of his senses and intuitions and memories to bring that subject to life.

For example: if I were to write about abortion, it wouldn’t be enough for me to report the facts about the debate. I would need to enter into the debate through my experience. My reading, studies, interviewing and reflecting all need to be informed by my willingness to know my subject matter intimately. How would I do that (short of getting pregnant and wrestling with that issue myself)? I’d want to imagine myself in that dilemma with full access to my powers of creating that experience in me. I’d want to meet and dialog with people who are on both sides and get inside their skin when I am with them. I’d want to take notes about what my body felt like as I read about the topic. I’d consult my faith and see what predisposition I bring to the project.

This is all much easier to do with a kumquat than abortion. So we start with the pine cone or cup of hot chocolate or the colored piece of origami paper.

Then send me your results! I’d love to see how your kids write. Email me at:

Return to The Writer’s Jungle page for a complete description.