Observation: Thoreau in Repose

Another observation exercise concerns describing the interior of a room. I usually begin this exercise by discussing what a person sees when one enters a room:

  • Does a human’s gaze move from left to right when he/she enters?
  • Right to left?
  • Does one first notice what is straight across from the entrance?
  • If not, then where?
  • Does one notice people first?
  • Colors?
  • Sounds?

Sometimes I might begin the exercise by showing the opening scene of a recent popular movie and have the students describe what they saw first, second, third, etc., in as specific detail as possible.

Then we talk about logical approaches to descriptions, such as presenting descriptions according to what the eye first sees.  We discuss illogical descriptions, such as not describing the hair, then the feet, and then the upper body of a person; but proceeding from one spot to another that is adjacent, from top down, from bottom up, but always beginning wherever the eye first rests and ending logically in a place that provides transition to the next topic under discussion.  We might discuss what an illogical description reveals about the narrator/writer.  We also discuss specific details that present clues as to a person’s personality.  I usually bring up examples from one or two of the essays written by professional writers that we have read and ask for details that suggest personality traits or behavior quirks of the person or persons being described–short precise descriptions that create an immediate image.

Sometimes I ask them to describe what I’m wearing. Does one detail say more than all of the others? Which details suggest my personality?  I might walk back and forth and ask them to describe my walk.  If I put those descriptions on the board as the students state them, then we can talk about organizing them into a paragraph.  I challenge them to state precisely the colors I’m wearing.


Even though the following assignment can be handled during class time, because I want unique expressions, details, that require close observations, and because usually I have a follow-up exercise after we discuss all students’ descriptions, I send it home with them.

The following picture is one I took on a trip to Massachusetts–the interior of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden’s Pond. Since most every student has heard of Thoreau from a course or two in high school, At times I have a guessing game as to what famous person lived in that room, which can be quite entertaining, at least to me.


Use the space below to describe objectively the following picture. Remember the difference between objective and subjective. Use verbs that describe precisely the action and concrete nouns.  Avoid generalizations. Be as specific as possible. Make sure that your description has a logical order. Decide where you are going to begin—what part or what aspect of the picture—and where you will finish.  Create ten specific/detailed/concrete descriptions, numbered 1-10, each in a complete sentence that gives a full measure of meaning.  This exercise is worth up to 50 points.  Points earned depends upon precise detail and complete sentences.



I would emphasize using verbs that describe the action and complete sentences, not because students cannot create a description in fragments and not because linking verbs cannot be used, but that all writing students should know the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment and they should practice using action verbs.

The next class period before collecting the assignment, ask for some of the descriptions.  Comparing the individual statements to the items in the picture can be illuminating to those students who overlooked them.

Note: Most all students would not know what an army blanket looks like.

Some follow-up questions might be:

  • Which of the descriptions included colors?
  • Even though we have a picture that only suggests colors and shapes, if we were in that room, what possible sounds would we hear?
  • What smells?
  • Logically, what could possibly be in the trunk?

You might want to end with this question: What might these details say about Henry David Thoreau?