When I was fourteen or fifteen, I liked to draw. I’d look up internet tutorials on how to draw the human figure, and nearly all of them suggested going outside and sketching anyone who goes by. Not only was this relaxing, but I noticed my art style become more realistic over time. I think we can apply similar concepts as writers to improve sensory description.
How to practice: Try writing down specific details about the people you see. How is their walking gait? What does their voice sound like? What quirks about them stand out as you observe them? Write down descriptions using all of the senses (except maybe taste) and, over time, you’ll notice your words become more lively.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to benefit from observation skills. Writing stories is all about noticing connections and seeing the extraordinary in ordinary life. People watching can boost your ability to notice little details and recognize them as important, and it can help you sense patterns more easily.
How to practice: In this case, remember once again that you are not Sherlock Holmes. Don’t assume that you know a person’s life story based on what socks they’re wearing (and definitely don’t try making such assumptions with friends or family).
Try to take in people who pass by and the small, unique details about them. Notice how they’re interacting with other people and the world around them. Think about why that might be and write down any thoughts or connections that interest you.
Writing first drafts can paralyze anyone. We all know that getting the words out is the first, most important step, but that can feel like torture sometimes. If you’re a hesitant writer, freewriting can help you feel less self-conscious when writing and jot down thoughts or impressions as they come. Other exercises can help you with editing later on, but you can’t get there unless you freewrite.
How to practice: Write down anything that strikes you without worrying whether it’s important or you’ll use it later. I like to focus on one person per minute and during that time, write anything that I find interesting. Once the sixty seconds are up, I move onto another person and continue that cycle as long as I want to keep going. With time, you’ll get faster and may notice that words come more easily.
In the book Stargirl, one of my favorite parts is when Stargirl and Leo go to the park and play a game where they make up stories about the strangers they pass. As they connect together little observations, they create vivid backstories that may not necessarily be true, but that’s not the point. What matters is stretching their minds.
How to practice: Play this game for yourself. Pick a person at random and, piecing together little details you notice about them, give them a backstory. What are they doing, and where are they going (both right now and in the long-term)? Why are they hurrying so quickly to wherever they’re going or walking almost aimlessly along? Don’t worry about getting it “right” so much as creating an interesting story for this person.
Developing empathy as a writer is so important, though not often talked about. If you can put yourself in the shoes of another person and consider what complexities, challenges, and little joys life holds for them, you will create emotionally powerful pieces. People watching helps train your eye to notice those around you more and remember that yours is not the only voice in the world.
How to practice: Remember the definition of the word “sonder:” the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Look for those complexities. Notice relationships. Notice facial expressions and emotions. Don’t just look at them but see them, and write down what strikes you about them.