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Why Your Reader Won't If You Say I See

I sent my Creative Writing students out of the class for an observation exercise today.  I gave them a fair bit of instruction, sort of an observational scavenger hunt.  They were supposed to find an out-of-the-way spot on campus, and then write a description of where they were that included the following:

  • Five things they see
  • Five things they hear
  • Five things they feel
  • Five things they smell/taste

I also asked them to mix small and large details, include details they think most people don't notice, and to use figurative language where appropriate.

On top of that, I told them they could write no sentence that began with "I see . . ." or "I hear . . ." etc.

There's probably a technical term for the "I see . . ." lead ins.  I've always called them sensory tags.  One of the several problems with them is that they encourage a lack of observational specificity.

When I first did this exercise, I had bunches of students turn in sentences like "I see the tree," "I see the parking lot," "I see the school," etc.  Sentences like these blunt the purpose of the exercise, which is to sharpen the student's ability to observe.  I tell the kids to read the sentence with the "I see . . ." removed and evaluate what's left.  They end with "The tree." "The parking lot," and "The school."  Those sentences don't really evoke an image in the readers' senses.  If they remove the "I see . . ." and still write a complete sentence, they have to make a verb choice that involves the object they are observing rather than themselves as the observer. 

"The tree" becomes, "The tree shivers in the afternoon breeze." 

"The parking lot" becomes, "Heat waves rise off the parking lot," and "The school" becomes "With its blue doors shut tightly, the school mumbles with the voices of one thousand students locked inside."  (actual examples from my students today).

By eliminating the sensory tags, the writers not only had to observe more closely, but they also had to make choices about what the things they observed were doing.  They're giving the reader an experience that they didn't when they wrote their "I see . . " sentences.

What I like about this exercise is that by changing an element of language usage, I kick the students into a completely different observational mode.  They're not passively listing observed objects.  They're engaging with the observed world imaginatively.  They're working the language in concert with paying close attention.

It's nice when kids come to the class with these two reactions: an eagerness to read what they wrote, and an oft-repeated complaint, "That was a lot harder than I thought it would be."


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 25th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
Very nice. I'm currently working on description and this is a lovely reminder.

I really enjoy reading your blog - as a science teacher and a writer.

Aug. 25th, 2010 01:55 am (UTC)
You're welcome. What level of school do you teach?
Aug. 25th, 2010 11:38 am (UTC)
I teach every age. I'm the manager of science education at a museum, so I teach pre-K, all grades and I'm in charge of the professional development for teachers. I also taught Methods of Teaching Science at Pace University and co-taught it at Rutgers University.

So, my fantasy usually has a scientific bent to it. My current WiP involves a civilian working on response to natural disasters. She has visions of Earthquakes, that nobody else sees or feels. And then they start coming true. :)
Aug. 25th, 2010 02:34 am (UTC)
They also ensure a distance from the POV character.
Aug. 25th, 2010 03:48 am (UTC)
I so agree with that!

And almost as bad are variations like "The sound of thunder came to her ears." I still remember disgust with some character reminiscing about "sitting in my father's lap with the smell of his aftershave in my nostrils."

Where the hell else would a smell be?
Aug. 27th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
I get bunches of sentences like that. My favorite was "He thought with his mind about what he should do."
Aug. 25th, 2010 10:40 am (UTC)
That is a brilliant writing excercise.

Am linking.
Aug. 27th, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
Hi, Nancy. Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm surprised at how often a simple exercise can produce powerful results.
Aug. 25th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)
Jim, reading this post, a thought occurs to me. Do your current students ever search back in your blog to learn about the assignments you plan to give them?
Aug. 25th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
LOL! Good question. I suppose they might, but as far as I can tell, they don't know that I blog, and if they do, they don't read it. Also, I change up quite a bit from year to year.

Edited at 2010-08-25 02:59 pm (UTC)
Aug. 25th, 2010 09:37 pm (UTC)
What a fantastic idea!
Aug. 27th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I copied the blog post to our English department. A couple of other teachers tried it and liked it too.

I send my department lots of mail. They're used to me sharing lessons.
Aug. 25th, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
Interesting and useful approach. I think I'll try that 'I see' idea on myself.

Thanks for sharing :)
Aug. 26th, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 27th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. Kids are still bringing me their favorite descriptions.
Aug. 27th, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
It is an AMAZING and very pared down way to teach show vs. tell. Those sensory tags are ALWAYS tell, right? Sometimes we need them. Most often, we don't.

Same goes for what I call "thought words." Wonder, hope, wish, know, etc--if it calls for the machinations of someone's mind in court, it's called hearsay. In writing, it's called TELL!

Great post! (here via jongibbs)
Aug. 27th, 2010 11:37 pm (UTC)
(here via jon gibb)

great post. i will cement this to my mind.
Aug. 28th, 2010 06:27 am (UTC)
i think this is the best way i have EVER heard the "don't tell, SHOW" bit of advice for improving your writing - this puts it in a more practical/useable light - thanks so much!

(wow - i just don't have the writing in me today - ouch - sorry that's all so grammatically awkward, i hope you can still cipher out what i mean)
Aug. 29th, 2010 12:18 am (UTC)

Ah! I see what you're saying... no no... wait! Let me put that another way.

As I was reading, a magnificent moment of understanding, clad all in light, came to me demanding my full attention. Slowly removing a black leather glove, it struck me across the face with an impact and force that left an indelible imprint upon my struggling conscientiousness.

A message, as if in my own voice, echoed this commandment (now written upon the Stone Tablets of my mind): "illustrate and illuminate the ideas and let only the Reader say "I see!"

PS. Thank you for "teaching" and thanks to jongibbs for leading me to your Journal.

Dec. 30th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
A delightful way to learn show v. tell. It's going to help a great deal. I'm learning the craft and this is the first time that rule came clear.

Also here via Jon Gibbs. Humble gratitude abounds within me.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )