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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.

Elderly woman in a crowd

Elderly woman in a crowd

Close-up of elderly man

Close-up of elderly man

Close-up of elderly woman

Close-up of elderly woman

Elderly man walking with rolling suitcase and umbrella

Elderly man walking with rolling suitcase and umbrella

Take Notes

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
  • Frowning
  • 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
  • Pumps
  • Smile at little kids
  • Knots on legs

And those were my observations that morning . . . .

What next?

Practice observing wherever you go.

Older man on a park bench

Older man on a park bench

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.

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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

  1. Take notes.
  2. Group notes and make outline.
  3. Introduce situation to reader in introduction.
  4. Write a thesis statement giving overall impression.
  5. Use details to convey your observations in body paragraphs.
  6. Show, don’t tell; let the reader see what you saw.
  7. Include conversation if appropriate.
  8. 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

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 Victoria Lynn


Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 23, 2015:

VirginiaLynne--Thanks for saying that. That means a lot coming from you. You write some awesome hubs on different aspects of English and writing.

Virginia Kearney from United States on November 12, 2015:

Good job in giving a concrete example that explains your tips. You have an eye for detail.

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on September 25, 2015:

Thanks, Nirmal. I appreciate your feedback. I hope my tips are helpful for people.

Nirmal Kandel on September 23, 2015:

Fabulous observation essay

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on January 31, 2014:

Martie--You're right about each generation having their own challenges. So true! Thanks for the awesome comments.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on January 30, 2014:

Excellent tips for observation essays. I absolutely love doing this.

I remember when I were young my mother-in-law often irritated the heck out of me with a phrase like: "One day you, too, will be 50, and then you, too, will have aches and pains that will change your attitude."

Each generation has their unique set of challenges to meet. By now I have a pretty good idea what they are in old-age.

Voted up and awesome!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on December 11, 2013:

Suzanne--Glad you enjoyed the hub. I think that observing different situations can add a lot to one's writing. :-)

Suzanne Day from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on December 10, 2013:

This sounds like a completely different way to write an essay and a good way to get some real facts while observing what's going on. I enjoyed reading your hub and can agree I have observed older people also frowning and being frugal with money in my area too - poor darlings. Voted interesting!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 20, 2013:

Thank, ChristyWrites! I appreciate the compliments about the hub. You're right--these tips can help any writer.

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on November 19, 2013:

Interesting, Victoria! Your tips are very useful for anyone who needs to write this type of essay for school or wants to explore different types of writing for fun. Your hubs are very easy to follow and I appreciate that!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 17, 2013:

That's so true, Vellur! Note taking gives us ideas for later. Thanks for reading!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 16, 2013:

Great tips on how to write an observational essay. The more you observe and take notes, more the content to write. Thanks for sharing.

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 15, 2013:

teaches--I think it's a good method to use with students. Oh, and thanks for the compliment! I had such hopes and dreams back then! Now if only some will come to fruition! :-)

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 15, 2013:

Thanks, DDE! I'm glad you think it's helpful!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 15, 2013:

epbooks _ I really need to do more observing now, too, to hone in on my skills of observation and practice on giving my writing more details.

Dianna Mendez on November 15, 2013:

I have used this method to stimulate esssay writing. It is interesting to see what students observe and share later. At eighteen, you were already on your way to being a top-notch author!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 15, 2013:

How to Write an Observation Essay - Observation Paper Tips with Personal Sample Essay, informative, and useful indeed to many writers. You have made a most helpful analysis.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on November 14, 2013:

This was truly interesting. Though I've never written it down, I do observe people and think things about them- similar to what you said about older people and feeling sad. Very cool idea.

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 14, 2013:

Thanks, CraftytotheCore. Glad you liked the hub. It was neat for me to go back and see what I had written about elderly folks.

CraftytotheCore on November 12, 2013:

Such a useful and informative Hub. I like how you analyzed what you thought of elderly people. I think it's a really great Hub!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 12, 2013:

Hello pstraubie and your lovely angels! :-) Yes, elderly can be just about anyone when you're only 18. :-) Thanks for your comments. Good to see you!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 11, 2013:

Rosie writes - I think that observing people is fascinating and can teach us so much, not only about them but about our own perceptions. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 11, 2013:

MarieAlana1 - I'm glad you liked this hub. Observing different populations of people can be very interesting and eye-opening.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 11, 2013:

I chuckled when you said that at first you weren't sure what 'elderly' was. It is funny how our definition of that term changes over time.

This is a guide that would be easy to follow and would be a great jumping off point for a story ....fictional or nonficitonal.

thanks for sharing.

Angels are on the way to you this morning. ps

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 10, 2013:

My Cook Book - Thank you so much. I really appreciate your input!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 10, 2013:

FlourishAnyway--Thanks for complimenting me as an 18 year old! :-) Oh, your teen will find out soon that 35 is nowhere near middle-aged! LOL. Thanks for the comments and the votes!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 10, 2013:

drpennypincher I love the questions you ask. You're right; it is interesting how our perspectives change. I had fun going back to that 18 year old summer for a bit, too. :-)

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 10, 2013:

Thanks, Bill! I think that keeping the five senses in mind can really bring writing much more alive! Thanks for your comments!

Audrey Surma from Virginia on November 10, 2013:

Great hub Victoria. I find it very interesting observing others and your pictures show why. There are so many questions I have about them.

Marie Alana from Ohio on November 09, 2013:

This is very interesting. In working within the early childhood field there were many times where I had to write observational notes on the children. I like how you do your notes on the elderly. That puts everything in a new viewpoint.

Dil Vil from India on November 09, 2013:

Very useful hub. It is interesting and as well written great. Thank you for sharing this info.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 08, 2013:

This was so interesting and useful for any writer. I enjoyed your teenaged observations. What a smart, astute young lady! I was recently informed by my teenager that middle age begins at 35. Still reeling from that one! Voted up and more.

Dr Penny Pincher from Iowa, USA on November 08, 2013:

Victoria, I think it is interesting how you might observe the same scene or same subject differently if you have a different perspective. When I was 18, I probably would have focused on things like clothing styles and physical changes that occur with aging- some of the things you mentioned from your notebook. Now that I am a few years older and a more accomplished penny pincher, I might tend to observe economic factors more keenly. Are elderly people wearing cheap shoes or expensive shoes? Are they buying name brands or discount brands? Do they seem to be buying only things they really need or extra stuff as well? Are they driving cars that are well-maintained, or cars that barely run?

Thanks for the interesting article, it was fun to think about being 18 again for a little while...

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 08, 2013:

I've written often about using the five senses; they are perfect for this type of essay and I'm glad you mentioned them. Good job Vicki!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on November 08, 2013:

tillsontitan--I love your comments! Looking back, sometimes I wish I could go back--or at least capture--that girl and her bright-eyed ideas and untapped potential. I'm not sure my 46 year old self does her justice.

I'm so glad you thought the hub to be enjoyable. Your compliments about it made my day! Thanks, too, for sharing it. :-)

Mary Craig from New York on November 08, 2013:

Oh my Victoria, how impressive your eighteen year old self must have been! Such an observant observation essay. The thoughts you added along with your observations made it interesting reading.

This entire hub could be required reading for any writing. What a great way to start. Adding your thoughts and feelings just made it better.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Shared too.

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