I believe there are two main elements to observation for writers:

  • Seeing better
  • Interpreting better

Seeing Better

At age 18, I went to art college. Without any training, I was pretty good at drawing and painting, or so I thought. Good enough to win some competitions and get my A level in Art. Fortunately perhaps, the art college I attended was old school. While students at Chelsea Art College a few miles away were writing poems about Coke cans in the gutter, at North-East London Polytech we were going through art boot camp.

One of the first things we were taught was how to see. Obviously, we knew how to see in terms of getting from bed to studio without walking under a bus. But, we were told, we didn’t know how to see with an artist’s eye. And this was true in two areas at least: spatial attention and tonal determination.

An exercise we did for the former was to paint a person but to work on all the shapes around her, not concentrate on her. In everyday life – indeed in movies too – we tend to automatically focus on what we consider to be the main object of the moment. For example, if someone is talking to us, we’ll look at their eyes, mouth, nose, and so on. We may glance away out of embarrassment but not to check ¬†what surrounds the person and what that might say about them. In fact, we would probably tend to think there isn’t really a particularly meaningful relationship between person and their surroundings.

But of course, in truth, what surrounds a person often says more about them than their actual words/body language. For instance, if they’re sitting in their own living room, while their current state is reflected in their face and speech, their more permanent self, possibly their more true self, is reflected by the objects, choice of colours, etc, that they’ve surrounded themselves with.

Where tone is concerned, we painted pictures entirely in one colour, using only tone to distinguish shapes. Prior to this, we had to paint a tone wheel: first three prime colours – red, blue and yellow; second, to paint several shades between each but with each tone changing exactly the same amount. Harder than it might sound. What blue is exactly just blue and nothing but blue?

In terms of improving a writer’s observation, what constitutes the important surrounding detail and what is tone?

Well, where artists are interested in the visual truth of a scene and how that reflects more universal truths, writers could be said to be most interested in the story of a scene and the tonal truths behind it. As said earlier, this means for instance taking as much notice if not more of the objects surrounding a person, including their clothes, and the story they portend. Often, this will be in direct contrast to what they’re actually talking about in the moment.

It means listening more to the way they say something than what they actually say. Because the meaning almost always lies in the background, under the surface, hidden behind a smile. The path to meaning is perception but we’ll talk about that more next time.

Another important element of what surrounds a person is their community, culture, place. In the modern western world, we’re obsessed with individualism and like to think that it’s more powerful than culture and community. So much so that modern people tend to think their ‘I’, their essential self, exists inside their heads. But anthropologists have shown that if you ask tribespeople where their ‘I’ is based, they’ll tend to point at the surrounding forest.

This possible disconnect between modern person and self/surroundings is great for writers. It means you can show the reader truths about your characters that they may not be aware of themselves. Or, you can show degrees of knowing perception in individuals which tips off the reader that they may be more clued-in and therefore worth paying attention to.

It’s often said that you can tell a person’s character from what they wear – and, to extend that, to what they fill their house with. However, I believe for the purposes of really convincing fiction, a writer has to understand that this truth is modified in direct relation to an individual’s degree of self-awareness, which supplies in turn their degree of choice.

One time, Kenny Dalglish manager of Liverpool Football Club was on the touchline during a match. He was looking at the same event as the thousands of fans around him. But when he was asked by someone what he was looking at, he said, “Next Saturday’s match.” It’s doubtful many fans were looking at the next match, or even if they were, would be seeing the same things Dalglish was. And you would have to realise this if say you interviewed him after the match. Because in speaking about how his team performed today, he’d be describing how they need to be next week. Without you ‘seeing’ that, you probably won’t understand his answers, even if you think you do.

A general rule of writing is that the reader should be seeing the story with at least as great a perception as the most aware character in the story. And if there is nobody in the scene who’s particularly perceptive, the writer needs to ‘see’ the surroundings of the characters for the reader’s eyes. This is another level of the Show Not Tell rule.

I’m aware this piece is a bit of a patchwork. Perhaps that’s a property of ‘seeing’ as opposed to seeing. Someone who only sees, tends to find what they expect to see and focus on it, even if it’s not quite what they think it is. Someone who ‘sees’, enters a room, a street or a scene in a story and glances around at everything, looking for the links, the patterns, the hidden clues.

Which leads quite naturally to talking more about perception.




I’ve been writing various ‘How To Write’ blog pieces, and I’m certainly not the only one. But it occurs to me that what doesn’t get talked about so much is how to be a writer. At least, not in terms of it having nothing to do with writing. Which it doesn’t. Writing is just a side effect of being a writer.

I know a guy I’ll call Mike who’s the country’s leading expert in his field, which is essentially testing products. Now, a lot of test people join a test lab, learn how to run the tests and then carry them out. They’ll have the necessary qualifications for the job but they won’t necessarily have the same attitude as Mike.

When Mike joined his first test lab, he didn’t just learn the tests. He wanted to know why they’d been designed the way they had, and how each instrument in the test procedure worked. So he took everything apart, the theory and the practice. Which meant he not only learned why a test was designed the way it was, he also discovered that many of them could be improved and that some didn’t really even do the job they were supposed to.

Mike and I went to Sweden once, to work through a new test procedure with the experts at one of the world’s leading furniture makers. On the way to their centre in our host’s car, Mike was listening to the engine and at one point advised our host on several things that needed looking at. Our host confirmed that a garage had just said the same for about half of Mike’s observations, and he would now get the other half checked out too. At the end of our two days at their research labs, they took us on a tour of their test facilities. Mike was constantly pointing out machines that weren’t adjusted properly or materials that weren’t quite right of the job. I felt a little embarrassed for the guys showing us around, one of whom was the head of the centre but he asked Mike if he’d be willing to return specially to run a formal audit over their entire set-up.

The new test procedure that Mike and I put together would have quite a big effect on a lot of people. So we took it on the road, speaking at all kinds of conventions, universities, workshops. Those who didn’t like the new test for various reasons would often try to catch Mike out, either with questions in public or private conversations in the margins. But they never could. And the reason they couldn’t was because his mind was always on the job. Not just the immediate topic but all around it too, on the chemistry that’s involved with the test process; on why exactly the industry would object to a particular element; on how the whole puzzle of theory, practice, outcome and effect came together.

Writers can just put a story together, following a stock plot pattern, using stereotypical characters, functional dialogue and a predictable outcome. This doesn’t require anything more than concentrating reasonably well during the writing process, and doing a bit of pre-planning and tidying up afterwards.

Or they can do the sort of thing Mike does. Which is why I called this blog ‘How to Writer’, not ‘How to Write’. A writer has his mind on the job constantly. But for him the job is not just writing a story. In fact, that’s just a small part of the job. Even early drafts and lots of revising are just a small part of the job.

I once heard a football manager tell a story about Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manchester United manager. Our guy had been talking to another manager who was interested in a young player from a small Scottish football club. Our guy suggested he phone Sir Alex and ask him if he knew the player. So they did and sure enough, Sir Alex gave them a thorough run down on the player concerned, even though he was obviously not the boy’s manager. Then our guy suggested for a laugh that they phone back Sir Alex and ask him if he knew anything about the groundsman at the same Scottish club. So they did and Sir Alex indeed knew the groundsman’s name and quite a lot about him. Now, our guy is a not bad manager but will never be asked to manage Manchester United, I believe, because he didn’t seem to see the link between Sir Alex’s constant on-the-job attitude and success at the highest level. He didn’t see the link between that obscure Scottish player and Manchester United’s long list of trophies under Sir Alex; he seemed to believe it was just a fascinating hobby Ferguson happened to have.

In fact, I believe that many people who write or want to write fiction make the reverse assumption: that only the time they actually produce words matters, and because they do occasionally produce words, they must be a writer. Like our okay football manager they’re blissfully unaware that to produce writing that soars, causes emotion and produces memorable characters, they need to learn how to writer. Well, actually, I’m not sure such an attitude can be learned. I think it probably results from an inherent and through-everything love for the art of writing.

Sir Alex was well known of being the first into Old Trafford most days and the last to leave. I don’t think that was him making some kind of work-ethic point; I believe it was down to love for what he did.

With the next post, I’m going to look closer at what I believe are some of the key ingredients and attitudes that make up how to writer, starting with observation and meaning.