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Observation: The Writer's Superpower

One of the first lessons I ever had in creative writing was about the writer’s “toolbox.” Since this first lesson several years ago, I’ve come across this concept multiple times. Each version of the writer’s toolbox is slightly different, depending on the person offering advice or instruction. Despite the many iterations of the writer’s toolbox that I’ve come across, the one tool that I’ve always considered the most important is the power of observation. It’s a writer’s superpower.

Some people believe that the only writing time that counts is time spent with their butt in the chair, fingers over the keyboard, churning out more words to fill the page. I disagree. A great deal of the writing process happens before a writer ever sits in the chair. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded with sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, and with each of these sensations is a possible story.

We are often in a hurry, and we get caught up in the course of chores that need doing or errands that need to be ran. We get distracted by our inner voice telling us what we should have done, or still need to do. We open our phones not because we have a call, but because we’re bored, so why not flip through social media? We get so caught up in these distractions that we often forget to take a moment and really look around us.

You have to commute? Try observing the other folks on the train or bus. What are they wearing? What are they saying? Do they make eye contact, or look away?

Sitting outside at a park, or in your garden? What precise colors are the flowers (or weeds) surrounding you? What do they smell like? Does a word exist to describe that exact shade of blue/red/etc.?

Observations in and of themselves may not be unique, but your take on them is. The way you would describe something is likely different than the way that I or many other writers would. Our observations are shaped by the lives we’ve lived. Observations might evoke a memory that’s unique and personal to your life and you can use that, or the emotion behind it, to enhance your writing.

As a writer, it is important to practice your observation skills so that you can infuse your writing with fresh thoughts and feelings. Time spent away from the desk can be valuable writing time, even if you aren’t directly putting words on the page.

Now go out and observe the world. Then, come back and write about it.

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