Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Writers as Students of the Universe

Most writers figure out pretty quickly that in order to write and write well they must be lifetime students of human behavior. It is a lesson early learned by a writer of any stripe. Here's why.

If the writer isn't a student of human behavior, animal behavior, even plant behavior the writing he produces will be stale, boring, and strumming away on one note. If the writer lives only in the world of his own thoughts and conclusions, his own behavior and reaction to the world, he constricts his own ability to create something original. In fact he smothers it.

Whether a fiction writer, a journalist, a copywriter or any combination or discipline the serious writer must study people. The writer messes around in other people's minds, observes personality quirks. What makes them tick? He observes their actions. How do they move? How do they speak (accents? speech impediments? overly loud or soft?) with gestures or without. Their size, their attitudes, their manner, their emotions, ethnicity and thought processes. All of it matters to the writer.

If a writer is writing to sell (copywriting and advertising), he needs to understand the psychology of people and what motivates them to buy one product over another.

If the writer strives to be a journalist then he's communicating facts and helping his reader understand what makes others tick.

Fiction is another breed altogether. It’s the place where a writer needs to not only understand what makes the characters he's created tick, but to convey to the reader their essence.

Understand every writer must be (and is) a student of the human condition, the whole wide universe's condition.

A serious writer's goal is to make the words set on paper or up on the computer screen sing. To use them to captivate the reader to whatever purpose and end that writer applies it. The writing must be infused with truth and reality to give it life. The best way to capture readers’ interest is to understand them. So the writer either consciously or unconsciously trains himself to always be receptive to what is going on around him and to learn from it, absorb something from it.

For the new and evolving writer a couple of hints as to how to develop the writer's observational skill follows. For starters, it's a great idea to take a field trip. Go somewhere public. Hang out at a bus stop. Go to the pool. (Skip the library for now, while it may harbor some interesting characters, it’s just too darn quiet for beginners.) Go to a sports game or visit a casino in Vegas (unless under the age of 21, of course).

While doing any of those things its a good idea for the writer to remember why he's there – to be an observer of people, places and things. It's way too easy once in position to completely forget what instigated the field trip and just immerse in the experience. That's not bad either, but a different writer's experience from the conscious observation mode.

In immersion mode it's simply absorb unconsciously like a sponge time.

In observation mode it's tune in, listen for accents, watch for how people carry themselves. Turn the writer's ear to bits of conversation (this isn’t really eves-dropping…well maybe it is, but in any event, paying attention returns benefits). This is the place where the writer can learn what motivates people, what they’re angry about, what they long for, even get an idea for a new story or a hook for that sales copy. It’s amazing the things people spill in public at restaurants, games, or just walking on the sidewalk.

When a writer relates what was observed and learned to his own life's experiences and feelings he soon gets a better, more complete feeling for people – his own kind - characters. The wise writer usually has a way to take notes of such observances. A pad and pen, talk into your iPod or whatever, but notes are important. If the writer doesn't make a habit of noting the sound of voices, words used, physical attributes, anything that is interesting, they're all too easily lost from the conscious mind. Writing them down or speaking observations helps to instill them into easily retrievable bits. Such notes will probably never be used verbatim for anything, but the act of writing it, somehow noting the events, cements ideas and observations in memory.

The observation exercise is a great way to keep the writer's edge sharp, to cultivate an open mind and lively curiosity. Even better once done consciously a few times it becomes ingrained and ideas will sprout like blades of grass under foot. From there living, breathing characters with real feelings and real quirks will emerge in the fiction written. The writer will get a better take on writing instruction manuals that real people will actually understand. And in his writing arsenal will be a tool that can be used when writing advertising copy allowing the writer to speak directly to the buying audience.

Not bad for a day at the park, Vegas, the ballgame, the subway or the zoo.

And speaking of the zoo - how about those animals???

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