Sensual research: Go to the scene

Gain color and insight through observation

You’ve heard about MBWA, or management by walking around? Try WBHA, or writing by hanging around — going to the scene to observe.

Observational research

Just looking Firsthand observation brings your message to life. Image by Joel Overbeck

Observational research is the most overlooked reporting tool there is. Which is a shame. Because firsthand observation gives your copy color and insight that you can’t get any other way.

Observational research means that you, the writer, experience the event or product or procedure so you can re-create the experience for your readers.

Covering a new roller coaster? Get on that sucker and ride it. Doing a piece on a new medical procedure? See if you can get into the operating room. Writing about a new line of chocolates? You haven’t really done your job until you’ve sampled a box or two.

Why description?

Through description, you show your readers what they don’t ordinarily see, make them feel what they don’t normally feel. Description:

  • Makes writing vivid
  • Helps you recreate a scene you’ve witnessed
  • Turns stick figures into portraits and adjectives into sensations
  • Overcomes distance, putting readers in the scene, making them feel as if they were there

The first step to good description is to find concrete, compelling details. Here are 7 tips for getting the goods:

1. Be there.

Hang up the phone, back away from the keyboard and go to the scene to observe. You won’t come up with good description if you never leave your desk.


  • Spend a day (or an hour) with your subject matter expert as she goes about her regular business.
  • Ask for a demonstration. Get the subject matter expert to show you how she found the computer glitch or otherwise demonstrate parts of the story for you.
  • Take a tour with the subject matter expert. Let the plant manager show you “how things work around here.”
  • Find an action setting. Put yourself and your subject matter expert in a situation that reveals something about the topic. When I profiled a customer-service guru, for example, I took him to a white-tablecloth restaurant where I could observe him observing the service.
  • Watch the subject in action, then talk. Be on hand while the surgeon performs surgery, for instance, then ask questions afterward.

Wherever you go, get out of your office.

“Place can provoke new information, funny stories, and great dialogue,” suggests Jeff Klinkenberg, author of Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators and other narrative nonfiction books about Florida.

“The way people talk, and what they talk about, is influenced by their surroundings. They may whisper in church, shout on the basketball court, talk nonsense after a couple of tall boys. Or they may chat about something remarkable they’ve just seen, something important.

“When you interview somebody at home, ask for a tour. Every picture, every book, every piece of furniture, can tell a story.”

2. Tune into your five senses.

Once you’ve left your desk for someplace more interesting, report with all your senses.

Remember: You have five.

Different senses affect readers differently. If you want to foster memory and emotion, for instance, focus on the sense of smell. The smell of Lipton’s tea still transports me back to my grandmother’s kitchen, circa 1972.

From the tick-tick of the heart-beat monitor to the “Jaws” theme song, sound can build tension in your readers.

You can use sound, on the other hand, to build tension. From the tick-tick of the heart-beat monitor to the “Jaws” theme song, sound can create stress in your readers — stress you can “break” by showing how your organization, product or service can solve the problem.

How can you tune in to all five senses? Try this exercise recommended by Perry Garfinkel in Travel Writing: For Profit and Pleasure. Ask yourself:

“Here and now I hear what, see what,
smell what, feel what, taste what?”

That way, you’ll capture, according to Kevin McGrath, assistant metro editor at The Wichita Eagle, “not just sights but sounds, smells, actions, reactions, interactions, bits of conversation, facial expressions, posture, clothing and the state it’s in (crisply pressed, badly wrinkled, sweaty, dirty, raggedy, shirttails hanging out etc.), how things look in relation to their surroundings, etc.”

You’ll see how your subject matter expert stands, sits and gestures and what she keeps on the bulletin board.

“Does a clock on the wall of a high-powered executive tick-tock relentlessly, like a metronome for his pressure-packed career?”
— David A. Fryxell, former editor of Writer’s Digest

You’ll notice the sounds the machines make in different parts of the company’s plant, and how your subject’s voice tone changes when he’s feeling stressed out, passionate or joyful.

And you’ll use your senses of taste, touch and smell to re-create the scene for your readers.

“Does a clock on the wall of a high-powered executive tick-tock relentlessly, like a metronome for his pressure-packed career?” prompts David A. Fryxell, former editor of Writer’s Digest.

“Do the floors of the manufacturing magnate’s office tremble with the distant pulse of the factory floor? Does the home smell of freshly baked bread, the production plant of ozone, the farm of recently spread manure?”

3. Take more notes than you use.

Take lots of notes.

You can always toss out whatever doesn’t make it into your piece. Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative nonfiction journalist John McPhee, for instance, might take 10,000 pages of notes for a single book.

And don’t just write down what your subject says, Fryxell suggests. Note his looks and mannerisms too.

“Do his eyebrows twitch like frenzied caterpillars when he talks?” he prompts. “What’s he wearing? Anything sticking out of his shirt pocket?”

4. Look for the telling detail.

Seek out “the Yankees cap, the neon sign in the club window, the striped towel on the deserted beach,” suggests Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlen. “Those things that, taken incrementally, make a convincing picture of real life.”

5. Practice capturing detail.

Take a Saturday drive to note detail, suggests Ted Anthony, assistant managing editor at The Associated Press.

Practice during your daily routine, McGrath counsels: “Note people in action. Capture snippets of their conversation. Describe the setting they’re acting in.”

Or try this exercise, Klinkenberg advises: “Walk in your backyard, look around, close your eyes, and recall specific details of what you’ve just seen.”

Practice ‘putting me there.’ Try this team exercise from Kate Parry of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

  • Break into teams of five — one for each sense.
  • Send teams to different locales in the area.
  • Ask each team member to report on the place for half an hour using only one sense.
  • Have teams put those reports together into full sensual descriptions meant to take readers to the scene and leave them with a sense of intrigue about what will happen there next.
  • Reconvene for readings and to see whether folks can guess where each team went.

Do your homework. You can also learn good descriptive techniques by listening to NPR. Study how the reporters on Morning Edition and All Things Considered use words to put listeners in the scene.

These techniques can help you wake up your senses to find more descriptive material during your reporting. (And enjoy daily life a lot more.)

6. Compare it.

Metaphors, similes and analogies can help you describe what you’ve experienced. Ask:

“What’s it like?”

7. Communicate, don’t decorate

Use description carefully: If your description doesn’t illustrate a key point, it distracts from your message.

One key to great copy: Be there.

Being on the scene can yield great anecdotes and description. That will spark reader interest in a way that virtually nothing else can.

  • Paint Pictures In Your Readers’ Minds

    Make their brains light up

    Think of description as virtual reality:

    Paint Pictures In Your Readers’ Heads: Make their brains light up

    • Describe a scent, and your readers’ primary olfactory cortexes light up.
    • Describe texture, and you activate their sensory cortexes.
    • Describe kicking, and not only do you stimulate their motor cortexes, but you stimulate the part of the motor cortex responsible for leg action.

    But write abstractly — aka, the way we usually do in business communications — and readers’ brains remain dark.

    Want to stimulate some brain activity around, say, your CEO’s latest strategy or that brilliant Whatzit you’ll be releasing later this month? Description is the answer.

    At Master the Art of the Storyteller — our two-day hands-on creative-writing master class on Feb. 19-20, 2019 in San Diego — you’ll learn to make your readers’ brains light up with description. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Dig up descriptive details: Try WBHA, the most overlooked reporting tool there is.
    • Tune in to sensory information: Use our travel writer’s tip for going beyond visual description.
    • Communicate, don’t decorate: Use this tip to avoid stimulating readers’ gag reflexes instead of their cerebral cortexes.


Sources: Ted Anthony, “Communicating Place,” Hallmark Cards Creative Conference, 1997

David A. Fryxell, “The Observation Occupation,” Writer’s Digest, October 1997

Perry Garfinkel, Travel Writing: For Profit and PleasureThe Penguin Group, New York, 1988

Jeff Klinkenberg, “Writing About Place: The Boundaries of a Story,” St. Petersburg Times, January 1995

Kevin McGrath, “Scene-setting moments,” WriterL

Donald M. Murray, Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work, Heinemann, 2000

Kate Parry, “Reporting with all senses,” No Train, No Gain

Anna Quindlen, “Writers on Writing: The Eye of the Reporter, The Heart of the Novelist,” The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2002

I.J. Schecter, “Secrets of Great Storytelling,” Writer’s Digest, May 2004

Michael Ray Taylor, “Flesh It Out,” Writer’s Digest, July 1994

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