Wednesday, April 20, 2011

O is for Observation: Don't Write Without It

For me, observation is one of the most important skills I have as a writer. It’s what allows me to add realistic details to my settings, to create interesting mannerisms, and to write authentic dialogue. Even though it’s tempting to go with the way I think kids might act or talk, it’s not always the best idea. My writing ends up giving the impression of an adult trying to sound like a kid.

If you’re writing for 8 to-12-year olds, you can't just observe how kids act, you also need to know what they are observing.

With my adult eye, I observe how, suddenly when my kids hit grade 6, everyone was wearing jeans. Or how my kids think it’s fun to poke each other and giggle about it in the backseat when their Dad is trying to drive. Or how they have weird conversations on the phone with their friends where it seems like they are saying absolutely nothing, e.g. “Hello”, “Hey”, “Me, too”, and “Okay, bye.” These kinds of observations about what kids do and say help to build realistic details, mannerisms and dialogue in writing.

But I also need to know what kids notice about the world around them and about each other. For example:

“Some candies taste like the stuff dentists put in your mouth.”

“Teachers never seem go to the bathroom. Do they ever go to the bathroom?”

“Parents always ask questions that are impossible to answer. Like “How was your day?” What do they expect you to say? I’m not going to describe every little thing that happened.”

Do kids notice how much swimming lessons cost or how they learned a new way to kick? Do they notice that they are holding their fork awkwardly or that Mom tried to slip some vegetables into their hamburger? What are they thinking about and seeing when they look at the world?

When you’re writing for children, I think you need to observe how kids act and talk, but also what they are noticing. Both kinds of observations will add authenticity to writing for middle grade readers.

How often do you observe kids? What kinds of observations do you make?

*As always, if you know of a good article or resource on this topic, let me know so I can add it to the list.

Laura Backes of the Children’s Book Insider discusses how observation helps you create great characters.

Cornell DeVille writes about how observations can boost creativity.

At the Literary Lab, Domey Malarsan discusses how to add originality through observation.


  1. Interesting post. Don't write for kids, but I occasionally write a child character. I don't actively observe, but occasionally I'll hear a child say something that will stick on my mond and I'll use that.

    Thanks for your question btw, hope the answer was satisfactory.


  2. What a great post on observing. B/c it really is more than just watching how they act but how they interpret their world!

  3. Such a good reminder. I volunteer at a middle school and I love hearing the conversations that go on around me. They definitely help me get into that "kid mindset."

  4. Oooooohh this is GOOD STUFF! I find myself eavesdropping on teen conversations all the time!

  5. I listen to my kids and their friends. I make a mental list of the words they use, their facial reactions, and how they act around each other. It's crazy some of the things they say!

  6. Whenever I'm near teens I spy and eavesdrop on them. Just call me OOYAWriter. :D

  7. I love watching people. My favourite place is sitting in the street cafes and just watching how people walk by, or catching snippets of conversation.

  8. Observation is so important. It not only acquaints you with kids but teaches you how to show, not tell.

  9. Terrific advice! I'm lucky enough to be a teacher and am surrounded by the munchkins all day long. They are a ton of fun :)

  10. Thanks for all the great comments! I'm glad my posts are useful.

    Jemi, I'm surrounded by little ones all day too, unfortunately not the age-group I'm writing for...maybe one day I'll write picture books again.

  11. This is great! We really do have to learn to see the world through their eyes in order to write about them.


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