Peggy Bechko: In Pursuit of Great Writing

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Honing Your Observation Skills
by Peggy Bechko

Bet you didn’t know you had to be a lifetime student of human behavior in order to be a writer of any ability, did you? Well, you do, so get used to it.

If you’re a writer of any stripe, that’s exactly what you are. Because, if you aren’t, your writing will be stale, boring, and strumming away on one note. Whether you’re a fiction writer, a screenwriter, a journalist, a copywriter or any combination or discipline you must study people.

You want to mess around in their minds. What makes them tick? Observe their actions. How do they move? How do they speak (accents? speech impediments? overly loud or soft?) with gestures or without.

Their size, their attitudes, their manner, their emotions and thought processes. All of it matters to you. And this is why:

If you’re writing to sell (copywriting and advertising), you need to understand the psychology of people and what motivates them to buy one product over another.

If you’re striving to be a journalist then you’re also communicating facts and helping your reader understand what makes others tick. To do that you have to observe people and understand them yourself.

Fiction is another breed altogether. It’s the place where you need to not only understand what makes the characters you create tick, but to convey to your reader their essence. Screenwriting is even more so. Your writing has to be tight and to the point and within that you have to convey the character of your people and the essence of what happening. Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy.

Understand every writer must be (and is) a student of the human condition (and depending upon what you write, perhaps of the animal condition as well).

As a serious writer your goal is to make your words sing. To use them to captivate the reader to whatever purpose and end you apply it. Your writing must be infused with truth and reality to give it life. The best way to capture readers’ interest is to understand them.

So, from this time forth you must set your senses on high alert. You must train yourself to always be receptive to what is going on around you and to learn from it.

Here are a couple of hints as to what to do to develop this skill. For starters, take a field trip. Go somewhere public. Hang out at a bus stop. Go to the pool. (Skip the library for now, while it may harbor some interesting characters, it’s just too darn quiet for beginners.) Go to a sports game or visit a casino in Vegas (unless you’re under 21, of course).

While doing this, remind yourself why you’re there. You’re an observer of people.

Okay, tune in. Listen for accents. Watch for how people carry themselves. Turn your ears to bits of conversation (this isn’t really evesdropping…well maybe it is, but in any event, pay attention). You’ll learn what motivates people, what they’re angry about, what they long for. It’s amazing the things people spill in public at restaurants, games, or just walking on the sidewalk.

Relate what you observe and learn to your own experiences and feelings and soon you’ll get a better, more complete feeling for people.
Your own kind. At least I’m assuming they’re your own kind unless you aren’t human or you’ve disowned humanity wholesale.

In any even, be sure to make notes of your observances. Their voices, words and physical attributes. Writing them down helps to instill them into your own consciousness. You may never use the notes verbatim for anything, but the act of writing it down cements ideas and observations in your mind.

Do this exercise consciously a few times and you’ll be surprised how quickly your brain tunes in and continues to follow the practice wherever you go, whatever you do.

From there you’ll create living, breathing characters with real feelings and real quirks for your fiction or scripts. You’ll have a better take on writing instruction manuals that real people will actually understand. And you’ll have a tool you can use when writing advertising copy which will allow you to speak directly to your buying audience.

So go out there and study people (and nature for that matter). With an open mind and a lively curiosity, you’ll be amazed at the positive effects it has upon your writing.

Oh, and you know what you’re out there to do, but the rest of the world doesn’t have to know. Fade into the background. And don’t be afraid to let your mind wander, you may come up with a great character idea right there.