How to Write an Observation Essay - Observation Paper Tips with Personal Example Essay
Take Observational Notes
Find Something--or Someone--to Observe
What is an observation essay? And how do you go about writing one? Well, the summer after I graduated from high school, I found out in a big way. What I was assigned to observe was, to me, life-changing.
The summer after my senior year of high school, I was fortunate to be accepted into the Academic Enrichment for the Gifted in the Summer, or A.E.G.I.S, Program.
Oh, I don’t know how “gifted” I was. As a graduating senior, I was probably one of the few seniors who had even applied for the program. Everyone else was ready to have some fun before heading off to college. Or they were ready to work and make some money. Well, I had a job—of about three years at that time—at McDonald’s, but I was an overachiever who knew I could work and still get something out of a summer program that focused on creative ventures--music, art, and my personal favorite . . . writing. So that's the group I was in.
The theme for the summer was the elderly population. Our first assignment was to observe this population. For us, ages ranging fifteen to eighteen, I'm not sure what age group we considered to be "elderly." That may have been forty years old, for all I remember.
Describe what you see.
Looking back at my notes, however, I don’t think that was the case. We evidently figured out that we were to observe those our grandparents' age or older.
We were to start by jotting down descriptions—just notes—of our observations before turning those notes into an observation essay. Guess where we went for our observations? Well, I went to Walmart, a seemingly natural habitat for many retired, elderly folks. I waited around a short distance away outside the building in the early morning hours on a Saturday to watch as those older folks waited in line for the store to open.
With notepad in hand, I walked around the store, stealthily recording my observations. Here’s what I noted (pulled straight from my old notebook from all those years ago):
- Plaid pants
- Men—untucked shirts
- Examining carefully the merchandise
- Woman—striped pants, flowered shirts
- Bright red lipstick
- Double-knit clothing
- Men—hands in pockets, playing with change
- Details—bargains (1 for $1.27, etc . . . )
- Walk hunched over, slow . . .
- Wide-flared pants
- Shuffles, scoots feet along floor
- Bloodshot eyes that looked right through me
- Lips pursed in concentration, picking out vegetables
- Bright green tie on ugly yellow shirt
- Looks—lost, wide eyes
- Stare a lot
- Old man with black toupee
- Big, gaudy earrings
- Big purses
- Men wear hats
- Men wear long socks with dress shoes
- Long sleeves
- Smile at little kids
- Knots on legs
And those were my observations that morning . . . .
Practice observing wherever you go.
Group Your Notes
So what do you do with those notes? Well, first you have to organize them into different focused areas. Group details into categories, perhaps separating men and women, what they wore and then how they acted. How you separate these out is how you will create your body paragraphs in an observation essay.
Sample Observation Essay - Introduction
I think my eighteen-year-old self did fairly well with the body paragraphs and conclusion but failed to include an introduction. I’ll add one here.
Start with an introduction that gives your overall impression. You may have a thesis statement that specifically does this, or your thesis statement may be implied and come in the conclusion. My introduction ended in a question, leaving interpretation open as the observation began.
Here's my introduction for the observation essay:
The double-knit flowered shirts. Their frequent frowns. Sometimes I didn’t want to look, but here I was, bright and early at the local Walmart. It struck me that so many old people were there waiting outside, waiting for the doors to open at 9:00 a.m. Personally, I would prefer to sleep in. It’s a good thing it was summertime, and the temperature pleasant. I waited with them, with my hair in a ponytail and my notebook in hand, ready to dutifully take notes as instructed. What would I find in Walmart with these folks on a Saturday morning?
Tips for Observation Essays
- Take notes.
- Group notes and make outline.
- Introduce situation to reader in introduction.
- Write a thesis statement giving overall impression.
- Use details to convey your observations in body paragraphs.
- Show, don’t tell; let the reader see what you saw.
- Include conversation if appropriate.
- Conclude with something significant—what you learned.
Observation Essay - Body Paragraphs
After I grouped my notes, I created my body paragraphs around three basic categories: how the people looked, things they did, and how (according to me) they must have felt. I believe that part of our assignment was to put ourselves into someone's shoes, as to the feelings involved, as that's what I did later on in the essay.
Here's the body of my observation essay (This is the original version, with only a few words tweaked for clarity.):
The biggest—well-most-noticeable--thing about the old people were their clothes. The women wore shirts with big flowery prints, paired with striped pants. The men wore striped pants, too—with un-tucked shirts. A bright green tie with a yucky yellow shirt.
Double-knit! Everything was double-knit.
The men wore hats—dressy little hats. One had a fisherman’s hat. Also, long athletic-looking socks with dressy shoes. Women wore big, gaudy jewelry and lots of makeup. Bright red lipstick was common.
There was an old guy with a black toupee, a woman with large, round knots on her legs. A woman at the grocery section had her lips pursed in concentration as she carefully looked over the fruits and vegetables.
They seem to be real careful about prices—how they spend their money.
“No, dear, this is better. It’s 100 for $2.69. That is only 50 for $2.36.” They talked about different brands and argued.
The men often have hands in pockets, playing with change. They would wait for their wives, looking around at other people, at rambunctious toddlers. Most old people like little kids. They would smile at them, talk to them.
Some of it made me sad. Like the woman who moved along pitifully slow, shuffling her feet—just scooting them along the floor. There was the man with bloodshot eyes, deep red around the edges, who looked right through me. And the old man—wide-eyes—looking lost, taking everything in.
I wonder how they feel. I can’t imagine thinking that I could die anytime. Some can barely get around.
I watched an old man turn around. A little girl was staring at him, wide innocent eyes watching the way he walked, hunched over, his cane tapping the floor as he moved. The man seemed angry, with scrunched up face and narrowed eyes. He wanted to say, “What ya staring at, kid? Never seen an old man before? Shoo, kid!” He was surely bitter. He hated the feeling, but he had felt it more and more lately. The girl was still there.
Fading memories of youth flicked through the man’s mind. Although he could hardly remember it anymore, he knew he had been young once, too. He had probably been like this little girl, staring at people, such as himself. His feeble heart softened for a moment, and he put a wrinkled hand on the child’s bright blonde hair.
“Hey, little girl. Where’s your mommy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you lost?”
“No, she’ll find me.”
The old man let out a chuckle. The child giggled and bounced away. The old man smiled after her.
Write to the Five Senses
Where appropriate, add details that appeal to the five senses. In my essay, I leaned heavily on what I saw. There was some detail as to what I heard, such as the dialogue or the jingling of the change in an old man's pocket.
What else could I have included? Taste, touch, smell? These didn't seem to fit with the essay I was writing, but when any of the senses do fit in with an observation essay, it is helpful to include them. If the observation was of food, for instance, taste, touch, and smell would definitely be an integral part of the observation.
Observation Essay - Conclusion
After you've written up your observations into essay form, end with a conclusion that leaves the reader with something significant to think about. What can you share about your observations? What changed you? How are you different as a result of this observation? What will you take with you? Share that with your reader.
My conclusion written as an eighteen-year-old girl was my perspective nearly thirty years ago. It's interesting for me to read it now, and it would be interesting in another thirty years to see how my perspective changes yet again.
Here is the conclusion I wrote from those observations:
Sometimes I’m sad when I see old people. It must be hard. Some are so bitter and have even made me feel guilty for being young. I shouldn’t. I’ll have to go through it, too—getting old—if I make it that far. It’s sad that people have to get old. Why can’t they just stay young-looking and healthy until they die? I guess that’s just the way it is—can’t be changed.
Tips for Writing a Reflective Essay
- Bridging the Gap Between Young and Old - Reflective Essay Example
How to write a reflective essay? Example reflection of bridging the gap between young and old. Reflect with a purpose; add a significant conclusion.
Writing About Your Own Observations
With a little more experience, my eighteen-year-old writing self could have added a few more specific details, but, all-in-all, I believe she captured the basic idea of the observation essay. Observation essays can be excellent learning experiences. I know that one was for me.
If you're writing your own observation essay for a particular class, you will need to check with your instructor for the specific guidelines for that assignment. Don't include sentence fragments, as I did, unless your instructor allows them for effect. Fragments can be effective when writers know how to use them but are generally not encouraged in beginning writing courses where writers need to learn how to write in complete sentences before experimenting.
If you're simply looking to improve your own creative writing, practicing observing and taking notes that you incorporate into your writing will definitely make your writing more interesting and creative.
More Tips about Observation Essays
© 2013 Vicki L Hodges
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