Writer Wednesday: Using Scientific Observation in Writing


It’s hard not to romanticize scientists. They dip their glass tubes into the hot, swirling chaos of the Universe and pour out humanity’s greatest achievements. Microwavable popcorn. Extra-durable phone cases. 

Puppy shoes. 

Look, I don’t have a great grasp on science, okay? But I am taking a course on it in college, and it’s been teaching mesome interesting things. Namely: the art(?) and practice of scientific observation. 

See, scientists make a distinction between seeing and observing. And it’s an important distinction. “Seeing” is really just the act of casual presence. It’s going to the store and noticing, as you walk through the doors, that there’s a ravenous crowd within. “Observing” is the specific, focused act of collecting details. What is that ravenous crowd being so ravenous about? (Black Friday.)

Scientists use observation to make informed notes on a subject, then return to the subject to make more notes. The goal is to build a whole library of information, with a catalogue of notes that highlight patterns and clusters. Continuing observation and comparative analysis (looking at the notes side by side) offers insight into what something really is and why it works the way it does.

As writers, taking “field notes” is important to us. We make observations about the world, and those observations are often consumed by others. Sometimes, those observations inform judgments and opinions. We have a heavy responsibility to look past the surface, into the patterns and defining features of things. For the sake of our words, and for the sake of our readers. 

Well, all of this is nice. But how can we apply it?

Simply: take notes. If your topic is non-fiction, read about the subject matter and take copious notes. If your work is fictional, read over it and make observations on character and setting and conflict. If you’re stuck, apply observation to whatever has you hung up. Be interrogative. Ask who, what, when, where, how, why, and then add else to the end of those. 

On a more personal level: return to your finished works now and then and apply focused observation. What do you like? What do you think could be improved? What sort of writer do you want to be? Does that come through in your work?

I could do a whole different post on keeping a notebook. But… just… keep a notebook. Or a notepad. Or a folded piece of paper. Or use your phone. Whatever. Just take notes. 

You’ll be better for it. 

There’s certainly something to be said for freeform, stream-of-consciousness writing. It can have interesting cadence, or allow you to try something you’ve never done. But if you’re looking to produce interesting, attention-grabbing work, you need to be mindful of it. You need to put thought into it.

You need to write, observe, and re-write. (Yay, editing!) In order to re-write well, you need to understand what about the original words do or don’t work. The easiest way to capture those opinions and turn them into constructive editing energy is to take notes. 

Good luck out there!

(Note: I love you guys.)

– R.

Ronin travels everywhere and eats a lot of blueberry muffins. When he isn’t learning about the practices of Smarties, he’s blogging on WordPress, Tumblr, and Facebook. Apply scientific observation to his posts every day! Look out for surprises on Fridays. 

If you enjoyed the piece, like and leave a comment! What are your thoughts? Has note-taking helped you be a better writer?

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