Those who have eyes to see, let them see

St. Lucy, by Rubiles
Don't worry if you don't get it;
 it's a nerdy Catholic joke.
Here's Week 3 of my Library Writing Workshop notes. I've left them as they were for my super-duper live presentation, but I think you're all clever enough to adapt them to fit your needs. :)


I was going to talk about description this week,’s the thing. You can’t describe anything well unless you first learn how to look at it. Or smell it or taste it or feel it. So, while we’ll do a little describing, mostly we’re going to discuss observation.

A writer needs to have all the perception of a visual artist. You may not have to re-create an image with paint on a canvas, but you have to paint it with words on a page. In some ways, this is a more difficult task, because you’re essentially creating that image in your reader’s mind using entirely dissimilar items: words instead of pictures.

And that’s just the visual. You also have to recreate the other 4 senses in a scene, which means learning to be acutely aware of what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, what you touch. I’d say the senses of touch, smell and taste are even more important than sight and sound, because they will instantly put your readers inside your scene--right there, not observing from a distance.

Actors make a habit of being aware of their senses so they can recreate scenes on stage--our “sense memories” are so connected with emotions that sometimes recalling a certain sensory detail will allow us to instantly feel and see and smell that scene from our past. Writers can learn a lot from actors...if we can observe and remember these sensory details and put them on the page, we’re that much closer to creating a real world for our readers.

TRY: Close your eyes--or focus on one line of your notebook paper if you’re not big on closing eyes in public. (I’m not, either.) Try to recall an emotionally-charged moment from your past. Now, starting with the details closest to you at that time, try to remember all the sensory details from that moment. What clothes were you wearing? What was their texture? Did you feel hot or cold? Were you wearing make-up that made your face feel differently than usual? Were you sitting or standing? On what? Were you physically comfortable or in pain? What could you taste and smell at that moment? What were the sounds directly around you? What were the background noises? Lastly, what did you see?
How much more vividly can you feel that scene now that you’ve recalled all the details?

Another very important thing to do is to observe the details about people. If you want your characters to stand out on the page and come alive, you need to give your readers specificity and uniqueness. Everyone’s one-of-a-kind, but not everyone can call to mind the details that will set someone apart. A writer has to.

Keep a journal--for anything you like. But it in, try to carefully describe your observations of someone at least once a week. How do they stand? Speak? Walk? What do they do when they think no one’s looking? What sets their face apart from the average? What are their hands like? What do they do with their hands? Do their clothes mesh with the personality they express physically? (Okay, so you’ll have to spy a little. Waiting rooms are great for this.)

EXERCISE: While I’m tempted to send you out to spy on some unsuspecting library patrons, that would be a little creepy. So instead, I give you my permission to spy on me. For 5 minutes, write down the details you notice about me. Not to share aloud, just for your own benefit.

EXERCISE: Now I want you to use all those details, plus a few others, to write a description that you might find in a book. Here’s the twist: use me (or the details about me) as your character, only make me the villain. Only highlight the details that will serve that purpose in the story. If I’m just totally non-villainous to you, use that--highlight the paradox. A serial killer wearing pigtails and a sundress could be pretty creepy, right? Also, use this room as the setting. Find the creepy details, and turn it all into a frightening scene.


  1. I love these! What great exercises :) Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Great stuff here on description and observation, Faith. I think if you can even pick out one really unique detail about a person, it's much more effective than describing every single thing about them.

    Hope you are well - I haven't been on the blogging path much lately, though I'm trying to do better! ;)

  3. I think writing concretely is the single most important exercise we can do. It can also unblock me. Funny about St. Lucy :)


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