Journaling to Become a Better Writer II – Honing Your Observation Skills

Welcome back to the Indie Plot Twist journaling class. If you missed the first lesson, here’s the link: Recognizing a Story Worth Telling. This week, we’re going to talk about how keeping a journal can help you hone your observation skills, and thus add dimension and detail to your writing.

What Details Can Do for Your Story

The sheriff’s deputy pulled open a door marked “DISPATCH” and ushered me through. Banks of glowing computer screens displayed unblinking images of the insides of jail cells. A wall of glass overlooked the lobby on one side and the cell blocks on the other. A voice crackled over a radio in ten code, and a man with a headset answered with equally unintelligible numerology.

The nerve center of the county. Communication central. The all-seeing eye.

I smelled pizza. Turning around, I located a food-splattered warming oven and a rat’s nest of paper plates and Styrofoam cups. 

That’s an excerpt from my journal–a behind-the-scenes tour of my local sheriff’s office. This particular snippet showcases the details I picked up on while I was in the dispatch room–not just what I saw, but also what I heard and even smelled.

Adding telling details to your novel helps plant your reader in the story world. It helps bring the story to life. It can even help make your setting more human, like in the above example. This high-tech room didn’t smell like electronics or new carpet; it smelled like pizza. And nobody bothered to keep the snack station clean.

Keeping your eyes and ears open when you’re out in the real world is a valuable skill to a writer. Any setting you find yourself in, any person you encounter, any unique object you run across, can sprout a story idea or add an element to your work in progress. Incorporating real-life details in your journal gives you practice for using imagined details in your novels.

In order to write details, you have to first observe them. That will be the focus of today’s lesson–training your mind to observe the details in the world around you. A discussion on how to write them could fill a whole ‘nother writing clinic. (In fact, plans are in the making …)

Hyde Park, LondonGrab Your Notepad

Have you ever seen an artist with a sketchpad in the park? They’re practicing their drawing skills by working off real-life models. The ducks in the pond, the old man on the bench, or the whole landscape. In the process, they’re training their eye to capture details.

That’s not a bad idea by any means. But as a writer, you’re going to grab either a notepad, your laptop, a voice recorder, or any other device of your choice and put your observations into words. Go to the mall, go to the coffee shop, go to the park–go anywhere, and just start jotting down everything that comes to you through your five senses.

Most of your observations will probably be based on sight, but don’t overlook the other senses, wherever they can apply: sound, touch, smell, and taste.

The Telling Details

You’ll probably come home from that experiment feeling like you’ve been blindsided by a million meaningless minutiae. Don’t worry. You have.

In good writing, you never list off all the details. When you do so, you end up with a meaningless laundry list. Instead, you only take time to mention the telling details.

What do I mean by telling details?

coffee shopImagine yourself back in that coffee shop again–or wherever you chose to run your observation practice session. If you had to use only one word to describe that setting, what would it be? Cozy? Chic? Clamorous? Meditative?

Choose a theme. Now ask what details from your list support that theme. Lead you to that theme. Maybe your coffee shop of choice was cozy traditional. The rough-wood floors, the criss-cross bay windows, the wrought-iron stools, the antique cash register, the old-school jazz music. Any detail that doesn’t strongly support that theme can be laid to the wayside.

Unless it’s a surprisingly contradictory detail. Such as the smell of pizza in the high-tech dispatch room at my local county sheriff’s office. Jarring details like that can add an element of humor, surprise, or humanity to your writing.

Training Your Mind 

You won’t always have a notepad on hand or the opportunity to whip it out. But that doesn’t mean you should fall asleep on the job. Particularly if you want to practice your detail work in your journal. You rarely face major life events–the stuff you end up journaling about–with a notepad in hand or the attitude that you’re in it for story writing practice.

But on a certain level … you are.

Or at least I am.

It doesn’t matter what kind of a personal mess I’m in–my writer’s brain never sleeps. Even in the middle of the most difficult situations … my mind is busy recording details. Because I know I’m going to want to journal about it later. In detail.

For the above description of the dispatch room–I had no writing or recording device of any kind, other than the brain I was born with. But for years, I’ve been training it not only to observe everything, but to remember as much as possible. I haven’t hit 100% accuracy yet, but I keep getting better.

I’m going to tell you right now, there’s no way you’re going to be able to walk into a room, look it over, then remember everything. That’s why it’s important to understand the notion of telling details.

Because it is possible to walk into a room, identify the theme, then zero in on, observe, and remember the stuff that really matters.

To help me remember what I observe, I mentally put my observations into words, as if I did have a notepad in hand. Then I drill those words over and over until I memorize them.

jade necklaceI don’t necessarily get fancy with my wording. Simple is better when playing memory games. For instance, I might notice that the woman I’m talking to is wearing a necklace featuring a carved jade stone. I might simply say “Jade” over and over. That will be enough to jog my memory later. Maybe even enough to remember how the soft green tone blended soothingly with the frills cascading down the neckline of her creamy-colored blouse.

By training my mind to observe important details in the middle of any situation, I accomplish two things:

  1. I’m prepared to write about any situation in detail.
  2. I drive myself crazy because my writer’s brain never takes a break.

But it’s a fun kind of crazy. People have actually noticed that I stare at everything when I go someplace new. What the heck. Why hide it? I’m a crazy writer and I like it.


The ability to work with details is super important to bringing your story world to life. And just like the artist who sketches from life models, we can work from life models to add authenticity and realism to our stories, too.

Homework Assignment

Again, whether or not you do homework is totally up to you.

  • Grab a word-recording device of your choice (notepad, laptop, voice recorder), go someplace (anyplace), and jot down as many details as you can. Pay attention to all five senses–sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste. Afterwards, choose a single word or phrase to describe the place, or a person or object you observed in that place. Now identify the details that support your one-word theme and write a description. This is a good exercise to repeat often throughout your writing career, just as artists make frequent trips to places of inspiration to sketch what they see.
  • Advanced class: Go someplace you’ve never been before. Don’t bring your notepad. Identify a theme for the place. Then pinpoint a handful of details that support that theme. Memorize them. Go home and write a description of the place. Now make a second visit to your location and see how many details you got right. Trust me, this is a super-fun exercise, even if you get half your stuff wrong. Keep practicing, and you’ll see improvement.

Next Wednesday, the 16th, we’re going to talk about how journaling can help you tackle the challenging subject of writing your characters’ emotions. If you haven’t done so already, don’t forget to subscribe so you won’t miss out on classes!

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Clinics in This Series:

Check out the Journaling Book!

Journaling to Become a Better Writer by Danielle Hanna

If you like this blog post series, you might like the book, too. What do your novel-in-progress and your journal have in common? Maybe more than you think. Your life, after all, is a story. The tools you need to take your craft to the next level may be hiding right under your nose.

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