Comments 6

How to Write Crisp, Evocative Descriptions: An Exercise in Observation (4)

The naked eye provides us with sensory, concrete experiences.
The imaginative eye opens up other worlds.

–Rebecca McClanahan


Here’s an exercise in observation that is geared towards training the naked eye to see more intently.

Choose an ordinary object – a soup bowl, comb, or blanket. Make sure it’s an ordinary object you see or use everyday. I made the mistake of choosing a big quartz crystal and questions about its origin distracted me from observing it. The second object I used was a pair of scissors. That worked better.

Place the object in the center of a table, or right in front of you. Set a timer for 10 minutes and  observe the object you chose. Use your eyes and other senses. Smell it, feel its texture, look at the small details. If your mind wanders (and it will), gently bring your focus back to the object. Among other things, you’ll realize how long ten minutes could be when you have nothing else to do but observe a simple object.

When the 10 minutes are up, describe the object. McClanahan says:”Report what your eyes have seen and your hands have felt. Use sensory details that the reader will be able to imagine – colors, shapes, smells, textures. Concrete nouns will anchor your description.”

She cautions against using adjectives that label or explain, such as lovely, old, wonderful, noteworthy, remarkable (I love using these words). Instead, use adjectives like bug-eyed, curly, bumpy, frayed, or moss-covered.

When you’re done describing the object in concrete, sensory terms, you may begin to use your imaginative eye. Remember those times when your mind wandered away from observing? Those are the things your imaginative eye saw.  Write them down as well.

While I was observing the physical details of the pair of scissors, I remembered that it was given to me by my sister more than a decade ago – that was my imaginative eye at work. I didn’t engage the memory, though, I brought my focus back to the pair of scissors. I wrote that down after reporting what my eyes had seen. I chose the pair of scissors randomly. It’s amazing how, after observing it and writing about its physical details, memories of the times when my sister and I shared a common passion for crafting filtered through – a heartwarming memory that made me feel good.  I didn’t expect that. How true, what McClanahan says: “The most common things yield startling surprises when we give our attention to them.”

I hope you’ll give this exercise a try.


“If description is the flowering, it is also the root and stem of effective writing,” wrote Rebecca McClanahan in her book, Word Painting, A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. I’m reading this book because I meet my Waterloo every time I have to describe something in writing. I honestly feel this makes my writing flowerless. This is such a good book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to write well. I’ll be using this blog to take notes as I read through this book, so this post is part of a series. I hope you’ll learn along with me.


Photo courtesy of Morguefile


  1. Windy Mama says

    I gave this one a try, Rosanna. I found the 10 minutes went by quickly although I did have pull my mind back. When I started to write about my stainless steel coffee pot I was amazed at how much I had to say. This is a great exercise in observation.


    • I agree, Susanne. It’s pretty amazing how much comes out after observing the object. I’ve decided to use this in my journaling. So glad you tried it.


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