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  • [BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] 3 Exercises to Sharpen Your Observational Intelligence
[BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] 3 Exercises to Sharpen Your Observational Intelligence
Written by
Jill Jepson
June 2016
Written by
Jill Jepson
June 2016

“Writers can fill their stories with as much ‘made up stuff’ as they like, but there is no substitute for astute observation,” writes A.J.Humpage at All Write Fiction Advice.  "It’s the one thing that marks flat, boring ‘telling’ description from vibrant, rich narrative that shows the reader.”

Most writers I work with are keenly aware of the importance of observation to good writing. Yet, few of them do much to improve their ability to observe. Most of us assume we’re pretty observant to begin with. We seldom think we have to work at it.

According to Psychologist Dr. Katherine Ramsland, observational intelligence is "the ability to observe one’s surroundings, including the people in it, and to understand what the details show." Observational intelligence is a skill. It can be improved. And it’s up to each writer to actively work on that skill.

I work on observation often, and I have my clients do so, too. Here are three of the exercises I use to sharpen and hone observational skills. They are easy and fun—and they can have surprising results.

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1. Observe a stone.

I often make my students do this exercise, even though many of them detest it. (Because sometimes the exercise you hate is the one that is doing the most good).

Start with an ordinary stone. Not a fascinating geode, an unusual agate, or a beautiful crystal, just a boring rock. I look for a gray, oval rock about the size of a man’s thumb.

Put the rock on an plain surface in front of you.

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Yes, 20 minutes.

Observe the stone.

You will probably go through several stages as that 20 minutes creeps by. Stage 1: Okay, here I am observing a rock. Stage 2: Well I’ve observed all I can. There’s nothing more to notice. Stage 3: This is boring. This is hideously, unforgivingly boring. And pointless! I’m quitting right now. Do not give in to this stage! Say the course!

Finally, something remarkable will begin to happen. You will start to notice that the rock isn’t actually a plain gray stone. There are colors in it. Flecks of red. A bluish hue. Oranges and greens and yellows will appear. And the surface, once appearing so bland will become interesting—here’s a small crack, there a slight depression.

If you can make it until you "break through" to a deeper level of observation, you will be rewarded with an exciting experience.

2. Describe a penny.

Describe a common coin. If you're from the U.S., a penny works best. Do not reach into your pocket and pull out a penny and list its characteristics. Instead, describe it completely from memory. Write a detailed description of each side.

Pennies are something every person in the U.S. has seen since we were little kids. Whatever coin you pick, it’s also no doubt one everyone is familiar with. What you’ll probably discover, however, is that when you try to describe it, you falter. You struggle to remember what, exactly is printed on the coin, how they are oriented, which way they are facing. In fact, it can be quite a jolt to realize how poorly you remember.

Once you have as full as description as you can, compare it to the actual item. 

Take specific note of what you got right and what you didn't. Do you see any patterns?

3. Describe the clothing of the people you've met that day.

At the end of the day, go back and think of each person you interacted with during the day. Now describe what they were wearing. Be as detailed as possible. If you do this simple exercise repeatedly, you will find your skill improving. You will get better at noticing and recalling.

Done regularly, exercises like these can train us to pay attention to detail, to hone in on the myriad small, easily overlooked things that add layer and color to the world.

What do you do to spark your observational skills? Do you have any special techniques you can share?

Hi! I'm Jill Jepson, author of Writing as a Sacred Path. Get my free ebooklet, Calling Up the Writer Within: A Short Guide to Writing at 50 & Beyond here. You can learn more about me and read my work at JillJepson.com.

Photo credit: Dreamstime.com  Woman sitting on a pile of books 

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  • Jill Jepson

    Thanks, Irene!

  • Irene Allison

    Excellent suggestions! As a reader, I love it when writers can capture the surprising and the sensorial. As a writer myself, I really appreciate your ideas for honing that skill. Thank you! 

  • Thanks for the  information especially the freebie on writing after 50!

  • Jill Jepson

    I'm glad you like them, Karen!

  • Thank you for sharing these exercises.  I'm looking forward to describing them!

  • Jill Jepson

    I have the same problem, Patricia Robertson. You'd think we'd know what a penny looks like, but almost no one can describe one accurately!

  • Jill Jepson

    Thanks, Susie Bedsow Horgan. Let me know how they work for you.

  • Jill Jepson

    What a great idea, Mary Adler. Faces are difficult. Puts me in mind of another post: How to describe faces!

  • Patricia Robertson

    Ouch, I know Lincoln's head is on the penny, but which way is it facing???? Beyond me.

  • Great prompts and exercises! Thanks so much. Going to try them all.

  • Mary Adler

    Nice exercises. Reminds me of being a new painter and looking out at a landscape and seeing only a field of boringly the same green. Now I see yellow and red and purple and blue and shades of green from chartreuse to teal. For me, the hardest part of writing is describing people's faces. Guess I will try the third exercise with faces. Thanks, Jill.