Poor writers observe nothing. Good writers observe something. Better writers observe many things. The best writers observe the right things. The worst writers observe everything.
That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.
So my English teacher said that I need to learn to observe all my surroundings in order to become a better writer. She said that “good observations make great writing.” Is that true in your experience? And if so, how can I be a better writer through observation?
—Glenn Hamilton, St. Paul, Minn.
If I were you, I’d find a new English teacher. If I were this teacher’s boss, I’d fire her. If I were this English teacher, I’d hang myself.
That advice is travesty, unless you believe that more cup holders make a nicer car or that more milk makes your cereal better. And if you do, see the solution for “If I were this English teacher” above.
Keen observation, while a critical component of writing, does not better writing make. If I notice that a character’s home features “paisley wallpaper, adorned with elements of aqueous blue and alizerin crimsons, with a little smudge of blotchy yellow bulging at most a quarter inch in the top right corner of the wall, eight-and-three-quarters of an inch from the sepulcher-white crown molding, crisping lightly around the edges, with its little cracks creeping like random spiderwebs and crap,” then I’m going to 1) wonder what’s up with the wallpaper fetish, and 2) use this book’s pages as new wallpaper for the author’s house, right before I burn it to the ground.
Observation. All about light brushstrokes. Dishes “in disarray.” “Waxed” torso. “Insufficient” lightbulb. Holding a “stubby” cigarette “in his talons.” Hedgehogs, like “little forests of needles.” A glass of water “sweating profuse.” “Tangled” beard. “Grimy” sunglasses. An “old” book, “pages yellowed, spine creased.” “Stank” breath. Let the reader’s mind do some work. It’s lazy anyway, and it could use the exercise.
I’m fine with noticing the “splintered chocolate chip cookie” on the table. But when an author goes 3-D X-Ray vision in his observation, demanding me to notice the “forlorn cookie, dotted with six-and-a-half semi-sweet chocolate chips, split into three parts, wholly distinct: one shaped like the island of Corsica, a chocolate chip standing where you’d normally find Mount Pinatubo; the others identical, separate only by occupation of chocolate chips, one fiercely outnumbering the other, all equally lonely, keeping company with scarce crumbs,” then I protest. So should you. Mount Pinatubo is nowhere near Corsica.
Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and referenced in your English teacher’s pink slip.