How to write a book. Rules for writers 9: Watch, Listen, Observe

 In Diary, News

Have you ever entered a room, perhaps suddenly, perhaps uninvited, perhaps distractedly, and sensed at once that something was amiss between the people already there before you?
Perhaps a silence descended, or someone wouldn’t meet your gaze.

Maybe there were emotional dust motes suspended in the air: the kind of shimmer that means things aren’t quite right. We all have these moments, but I believe that writers have them more frequently and more intensely than others.

Writer, outsider

Maybe this is because to be a writer always means to be something of an outsider: and so our antennae are more finely-tuned than others’. Although this superfine tuning can often feel uncomfortable – not to mention occasionally paranoid – this sensitivity is a gift.

We need to treasure it, to mine it for all it can reveal about how we respond to others, and how others respond to those around them.

Learning to watch

Learning to watch others is an invaluable tool for a writer. In watching, we can discover the roots of stories. Because stories are all around us: we just need to learn to be receptive to them.

Our families are full of stories: shake the closet a little and see what rattles around inside it, or even falls out, into your writer’s lap. All we need is the moment of inspiration to get us hurtling towards the desk.

It doesn’t matter if there are gaps in the family narrative: it’s in these spaces that the imagination begins to become muscular, to flesh out the bones of a slender, shadowy skeleton.

Everyone we meet has a story, too: there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

All lives are story-worthy. Watch how people’s faces change as they tell others about something that has happened to them. Watch their body language, their expressions, their hand gestures.

Do so quietly, without intrusiveness.

And be aware that people often tell their stories without words.

I’ve seen people look at me suspiciously when I tell them that travelling on public transport is of huge benefit to a writer. I love public transport: all forms of it – bus, tram, train. It provides endless opportunities to eavesdrop on the conversations of others.

Learning to listen

Listening in this way is similar to watching – it must be done subtly, without intrusiveness, without being obvious.

Some terrific bits of dialogue once revealed themselves to me as I listened to the argument of a young couple going home together after the cinema.

They sat opposite me on the Luas and made no effort to conceal their disagreement. The entire carriage was privy to their conflicting views. Everyone was entertained.

The job of the writer, of course, is then to transform the germ of this argument into fiction. That way, it belongs to us, because it has now become something different: the alchemy that changes the base metal of experience into gold.


Emotional archaeology

Some of the many synonyms of ‘observe’ include ‘discern’, ‘distinguish’ and ‘perceive’.

I include these, because I like the idea that a writer has to delve beneath the surface of things – and people.

While watching and listening are active pursuits, observing is more nuanced, more reflective. It will involve acts of emotional archaeology, for example, or the art of making connections where none is immediately obvious, or teasing out the complexities of a situation that may appear to be, on the surface, simple or straightforward.

Observing also means taking time to study something in depth, to be prepared to engage with a challenging issue, to see the other side of a question.


Putting words on paper is a difficult enterprise.

Putting the right words on paper is even more challenging.

But it’s part of the job of the writer to be clear about what we want to say, and to say it in the best possible way.


Let me know how you get on – your feedback is welcome.


Photograph: Noel Hillis

In Italiano

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Lisa Harding - HarvestingCatherine Dunne (Photo: Noel Hillis)