On Teaching Observation

Writing Exactly What You See: Often Students See More Than They Think

Just after eleven in the morning one fall semester, pre-social media times, maybe 2005, when I was still teaching the two courses that produced the Ryerson Review of Journalism, a fourth-year undergraduate student, Erin, knocked on my office door. She was upset. 

She was working on a profile of the recently installed new editor of Chatelaine magazine (the largest circulation women’s magazine, and one of the largest circ mags, period, in Canada). It was kind of a big deal. What was this new boss like? We heard that she had been plucked from the book publishing industry and did not have much experience with magazine culture, let alone directing a big-time monthly. Erin landed an opportunity to “hang out” with the editor for a morning, which included sitting in on a weekly editors’ meeting in the boardroom. I said, Great stuff, go for it. 

Erin went to the Rogers Building for her Chatelaine morning. She was escorted from the entrance of the media monolith—no one wanders around this massive downtown Toronto building—all the way up to the magazine’s offices. She came back to the journalism school and said: I don’t think I have anything; nothing happened. 

I asked Erin if she had a few minutes to do a little post-mort. She said yes. I beckoned her to sit down and chat. I asked all kinds of little questions—“And then what happened?” . . . “And what happened after that?”—about how she came to be in the Chatelaine offices, beginning with being chaperoned from the main lobby  right through to her exit from the building.

After she was given a little tour of the magazine offices, it was time for the meeting. Into the boardroom various editors and sub-editors ambled, and then everyone waited. Finally, the editor arrived. She went around the table and asked about a bunch of stories. She indulged some speakers; others she cut off. Then she walked out of the meeting early. A lunch date. In my student’s mind nothing added up to much. But when Erin looked back, recounting events just as they happened, to the best of her ability and in detail, this accretion of mini-events amounted, in my mind anyway, to showing quite a bit about the editor’s character—arrogant, imperious, capricious. All three? Possibly.

There’s a knack to looking at the world for story. I said, Erin, I think a lot happened this morning. Why don’t you go to one of those classrooms down the hall and sit at a Mac station and write it all down—right now, I mean, before you start to forget everything—and email it to yourself? And then tonight, if you have the time, open the same file. Read it slowly and play back the morning’s events in your head again (and maybe do a bit of proofreading and rewriting while you’re at it). If reading the scene over again triggers a few more details you didn’t remember when talking to me, write them in too. Then send me the file. 

Yeah, well, the file ended up being close to 2,000 words. She had a scene all right, a scene that played directly to theme. (Management took a huge chance on hiring someone from outside magazine culture, someone who seemed not to know much about magazines but did seem to swan about and flaunt her power. Meanwhile, a venerable magazine had been producing a surprising dearth of the kind of journalism for which it was known and admired.)

Ernest Hemingway—yes, I am aware that he is out of fashion—wrote something smart about writing what you see. He said:

When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking about what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it is that gave you that feeling. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxi or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people. [1] 

Writing Exactly What You Hear

Here is another example, maybe geared more to writing exactly what you hear instead of exactly what you see. Early in the Winter 2021 semester (that means mid-January to the end of April at X University in Toronto), the first class in fact, I prompted the eleven students in my weekly graduate-level narrative course to say a bit about themselves, as a kind of icebreaker. This was on Zoom, by the way—not great, but we had to make do. As we went from student to student, I wrote notes about each—where they did their undergraduate work, in what subject, where they grew up, what kind of jobs they’d had, that sort of thing. I like to write this information in a small notebook because it helps me remember from week to week, especially the crucial early weeks when I’m memorizing names and profiles. Over time, though, I began to see these notes as a  resource for finding writing topics for scene-writing exercises throughout the term. 

What I look for is action: something happened at a certain time and place. For instance, Bronwyn told everyone they had been a ski racer and in fact had attended college in Vermont on a ski scholarship. (They’re from Collingwood, Ontario, a ski-crazy area that, alas, is not blessed with the highest of hills, certainly not on the order of Vermont’s, let alone the Rockies’.) So, I said, Hey Bronwyn, can one of your fellow students interview you about your ski career? They said sure! And I found a third student to open a Google Doc and plunk in the transcript, which we would use as a reference once we started writing our 250- to 300-word scenes. And away we went. 

We found out that Bronwyn was intensely competitive. We focused the conversation on one race, in Québec City, so we could have one definite action in time and place. I asked the writers to weave everything else they wanted the reader to know about Bronwyn (background, motivation, etc.) into the scene. So, here’s the point. The interviewer kept talking to Bronwyn and then, oomph, we found ourselves bumping into an epiphany. After ski racing for twenty years, since the age of two, Bronwyn quit the team in the second year of college. The brazen homophobia of some team members got to be too much. Bronwyn then directed their considerable energy into school, into learning about alternate cultures, into becoming politicized. And, they said, they wanted to date girls, which wouldn’t have gone over well, presumably, with former ski mates.

Amazing what can happen. Now my students not only had a good racing scene but also a dramatic twist in the story. All the students had to do was listen carefully.

Understanding What You Did Not Actually See

Here’s another example, one that relates more to what I did not actually see. It’s Sunday, June 6, 2021. I’m driving back home from my wife’s mom’s place. My wife is in the passenger seat. She reads on social media something about the Egerton Ryerson statue being toppled—right now!—on the Ryerson University campus. Ryerson was an influential nineteenth-century educator who some believe bears a degree, maybe more than a degree, of responsibility, either directly or indirectly, for the odious residential school system that stole Indigenous children from their parents to indoctrinate them in Christian settler ways; in other words, to drive the Indian out of the Indian, in nineteenth-century Canadian government parlance. 

Now that’s action! We deviate from our usual route home and park on Gould Street, about a half block east of the commotion. 

My wife’s decision to visit the protest gives me an opportunity to see the actual size of the statue. It’s one thing to walk by the statue every day for almost twenty years; it’s quite another to see it lying on the ground, to almost feel the length and heaviness of the object, and to observe and gauge how tall, large, and unwieldy the statue really is. (I wish I had a tape measure with me. Maybe eight, nine feet tall?) The attackers could barely roll it once it was on the ground. They might as well have been Lilliputians tying down Gulliver, and there weren’t enough of them. They wanted to decapitate the sculpture. Gruesome. The statue is hollow, but it is heavy, and the metal neck is not so easily manipulated. 

We didn’t stay to watch the protesters wrestle with Egerton, but I read in the Toronto Star newspaper the next morning that the avengers eventually managed a successful beheading, then travelled a few victorious blocks south to toss the educator’s big brain into Lake Ontario. It was later retrieved and put into storage, along with the fallen campus god’s body. According to Ryerson University President Lachemi, head and body would not be re-erected. 

Shortly after the fall of Egerton, the special committee which had been struck several months previously to consult various stakeholders about the possibility of changing the name of the university released its recommendation: Change the name. There is now another committee for that. In the meantime, our emails say: X University. (As in Malcolm? As in X the Los Angeles punk band? As in X marks the spot? As in Professor X? You get to decide!) 

This is the point I want to make. I wrote down what I actually saw but then I did not stick around. And so here I am, relying on the Star to fill in the “And then what happened?” I didn’t follow through, and I should have. Also, yes, it’s true I achieved that “feel” of being up close to Egerton Ryerson’s metallic body, but I did not take the time to calibrate its height, nor did I remember many other details. The statue had turned green with age, for instance. What did its eyes look like, up close? Hmm, don’t know. Writing down what you actually see, it turns out, is a lot harder than I thought.

The Globe and Mail feature reporter Ian Brown is often a guest in my class. He has a version of writing what you see that I like a lot:

Somebody once asked Hemingway what the hardest thing about writing was and he said there are two things. The first is using the details of reality to recreate emotions in the reader. That’s hard, but there are actually techniques for that. [That is, the four techniques Tom Wolfe outlines in his introduction to The New Journalism: scenes, detail, dialogue, and point of view.] The second, harder thing is to know what it is you actually noticed and saw and felt, as opposed to what it is you think you should have noticed and seen and felt, or what everybody wants you to see and think and feel, and what you yourself wish you had thought and seen and felt, because that would make you feel like a genius. You have to resist that tendency, even in journalism, where we’re supposed to be resisting it in the first place.[2]

And There Is Always the Sin of Omission

Finally, I recall a reporting incident that happened when I was the editor of Eye Weekly, one of those old-fashioned alternative news and arts papers that used to proliferate across North America, including two in Toronto, before fascist-fake populist-authoritarians co-opted the word ‘alternative’ to ‘alt-right’. It had to do with the Battle for Seattle (1999), or at least the Toronto fallout from the Battle. Our reporter was there, in the downtown core, to cover the protests. The Eye office wasn’t far away, just west of the “fight.” There was no question that she was sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, and that she had an activist bent, but we knew that going in. She had good connections and so was able to capture good scenes. She also covered one vignette that caused her anguish. There was a large garbage can on fire, for warmth mostly. But then the good guys kicked the can over and caused some damage. Our reporter came back and told us but didn’t want to include it in her story because it would make the protesters look bad. I told her, look, you report what you see. You can’t report only the parts of reality you think our readers want to see. You write it up exactly how it goes, not how you think it ought to go. Life is complex; keep your eyes open. 

It’s a tough lesson to learn, and re-learn, and re-learn . . .

[1] “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.” In William White (ed.), By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967, 213–20. Quoted material, 219–20. Originally published in Esquire, October 1935.

[2] Ian Brown, “Writing What You See, Not What You Think You See,” Literary Journalism Studies Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 2009): 57–62. Quoted material, 59–60.    

Bill Reynolds


Bill Reynolds is the editor of Literary Journalism Studies. He is a Professor at the School of Journalism, X University, Toronto, Canada.

Bill Reynolds

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