Recently, I read a quote by columnist, author, and lecturer, Marilyn Vos Savant who said, “To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.” That started me thinking about the importance and value of observation as a writer.
I consider observation to be much like the dictionary's definition, but I would add seeing and even listening. Writers need to observe, or watch, see, notice, and even listen in order to create a world that entices readers to plunge into our story, article, or book. But does observation end there, or does it, like the author quoted above, lead to wisdom? I don't think so.
I have found that there are two main ways that writers observe--structured or unstructured.
Structured observation is simply a method of collecting data. It is research. It's knowing you need to get a high school cafeteria scene right so you ask permission to sit and "observe" during several lunches at the local high school. You arrive early, choose a table off to the side, and collect data on language, inter-actions, the position of the tables, the food served, the teens' clothing, and whatever you need to help set the scene.
In my first book, The Great Camel Experiment, I felt I needed to observe the loading and unloading of a camel to help me understand the explanations written in the diary of one of the participants. That meant "observing" how a camel may have been packed in the 1850s. This structured observation helped me understand previously unknown terms and the time element involved.
When using unstructured observation, the writer has a vague idea of what to look for, but is open to whatever comes her way. I am using this technique now for my new book on bullying. I have an opinion, but I do not want it to take precedence. Instead I am looking for unexpected behaviors, words, phrases, or comments that could lead to a bullying situation. When I see or hear something along these lines, I record the incident in my notebook and include all the nuances of the moment--people, time, place, and situation. Because of my subject matter and the fact that I am a responsible parent at my location of choice, however, I am also ready to intervene when I do see it occur. If and when I intervene, I also jot down the behavior that follows.
It doesn't matter which observation is used, just that it is, and it does not matter which genre you choose to write. All writing, as far as I am concerned, can discover a treasure trove of value in observation.