Deep Observation Assignment: Eleven Examples


Spend at least twenty minutes in a public space, observing one person you have never seen or met before. The person need not be someone who strikes you as interesting. In fact, somebody who appears to be less than interesting to you is often the best choice for this assignment.

This is a difficult assignment for a number of reasons. It is hard to find someone who will be still and accessible for twenty minutes; if the person moves, move with him or her. The subject also might become aware of being observed. This is not a problem; simply talk to the person if he or she inquires, or move on to another observation if it seems at all bothersome to the person being observed. Your goal is not to make someone uncomfortable but to pause and consider your environment and those who inhabit it.

Using your five senses, take notes on everything around you and everything about the person, focusing on the subject’s appearance, how she carries herself, her actions and interactions, the way she interacts with her environment, any speech you might overhear, the feeling, look, smell and feel of the space your subject inhabits.

After you have finished taking notes, as close to the observation time as possible, construct a narrative description of this person and his or her life based on the details you have recorded.

This is an assignment you may enjoy doing more than once. If you are riding public transportation or have free time in a public space, you can practice your observational skills and storytelling abilities by basing pieces on this real-life observational note taking.

This is a fiction-writing assignment based on real observation and will be shared during class discussion.


Student Samples

These assignments are based on a two-tier process of taking notes first and then crafting a story.

Because of the narrative nature of this assignment, although these samples are first drafts, they are quite strong.

Joomi describes a young woman eating alone.

Neziah describes a couple in love riding the subway.

William describes an ill-fated encounter at a bar.

Emma describes a young man visiting her ailing father in the hospital.

Anne describes a man arriving at a homeless shelter.

Heather describes a woman reflecting on her relationship on her way home from yoga.

Justine describes a man reflecting on others accepting his relationship.

Jillian describes a woman struggling to finish her work.

Chadbourne describes a man singing for donations.

Tyana describes a woman selling jewelry on the sidewalk.

Adriana describes a woman anxious about her relationship.


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