Observational writing can be applied to many fields and subjects. You may find it working its way into general writing courses as well as disciplines that require some form of qualitative research. In essence, observational writing is a form of 'direct investigation' as it looks to analyze the precise details of an event, person, area, situation, concept, or phenomena.
In other words, observational writing attempts to provide the reader with a sensory experience that allows them to see the subject 'as if they themselves were present.' In addition, it also works to bring a new and crisp interpretation to light (for instance, taking a common occurrence, such as animals in their habitat and presenting it in an unexpected or alternative manner).
Different forms of observation
There are many reasons to conduct an observation. To begin, a distinction should be made between observations that are done to compile information and the observations that are done to formulate an observational essay. In some cases a writer of a fictional story, poet, or even a news article writer may decide to include some brief observations in their writing as means of adding interest to the piece or in some cases providing necessary evidence to prove a particular point. Likewise, a researcher, with a topic in psychology, may also include some bits of observation in the midst of conducting qualitative research. All of these examples fall under observations done to collect or compile information or data.
The observational essay, on the other hand, is an essay entirely devoted to a particular observation of a person, place, event or object (rather than being one component of a larger project such as a research paper or news article). This type of writing follows its own set of guidelines and formatting.
Generally an observational essay will;
- Place the author as an outside observer
- Make a 'fresh' or new observation of the subject
- Include sensory details
- If an event provide the details of it step-by-step
- Be more than a compilation of notes, but engaging and interesting to read as well
- Provide some insight into the subject and or reflection on what has been observed
Though all of these descriptions may not apply to every observational essay, they are a general guideline of what to expect when reading or preparing this form of writing.
Writing the observational essay
Step #1-What should you write about?
A suitable topic for an observational essay can range from a kid's playground in your local neighborhood to a colony of bees enjoying the morning sun; despite the selection, it's important to choose a subject that you are comfortable writing about and can see yourself having easy access to (without being overly involved or interfering with the subject).
For instance, with the example of a kid's playground, if you go to the playground with your own child or a friend's child you know that you will have an impact on that environment. And the same can be said for a bee colony-your mere presence may disrupt the activity of the bees present and therefore influence the results of the observation. Which leads us to the second step; choosing whether or not to be an outside observer (spectator) or an active participant in your observation.
Step #2-What is your role?
In most cases writers may find being a spectator as the most comfortable role to take on for the observational essay. This may be for several reason; one being, that as an observer you really get to concentrate on taking detailed notes at the moment, rather than recalling information later on (as would likely be the case if you were a participant). Though writing as a participant as well may occur in many situations where the choice is really unavoidable. For instance, if you wanted to write an observational piece on your brother's graduation or something of this nature, it would really be difficult to not get involved. Similarly. in some cases even if you have the option of being only a spectator, you must also factor in the possible influence you may have on the environment, event, or person being studied.
Step #3 Observe and take detailed notes
This is obviously one of the most important steps for this particular essay (as your notes are your paper for the most part). Its important to consider several factors when taking detailed notes, some of them include; mood, feeling, and sensory details such as smell and sound. Also the importance of providing clear and precise visual descriptions to make the reader 'feel as if' they were experiencing the event or observing the subject as you are observing is heavily stressed. *The exact order in which things occurred is also important when observing an event taking place.
Step #4 Reflect on your notes, elaborate, and organize
Reflection in some form usually has its place in an observational essay whereas reactions may or may not be included. The difference is that reactions may be limited to specific feelings and thoughts as it relates to something in particular that was observed, whereas reflections are generally more planned and poised in their presentations. Your reflections for instance, may look at the 'bigger picture' or connect what occurred (or what was observed) to larger concepts or ideas.
Secondly, elaborating on your notes is a good way to really get your paper started. Elaboration may simply include adding in a few questions that you may want to explore, or providing more details to an already existing description. You may decide to focus on your most memorable point of observation and provide a lengthy explanation of that and so on. Also at this point you should begin organizing your information; identify a few specific organizational structures, test them out, and see how each will work out for your essay.
*Depending on the subject that is being observed, you may decide to describe the information in (a) the order that it occurred, (b) according to what you consider to be the most relevant or important issue, or you may decide to even (c) organize it in the form of a narrative. One of the biggest issues that will influence your organizational structure is mainly the subject that you've examined and the audience that you are preparing the essay for (Think-which structure will work best for them?).
Step #6 Start your first draft!
Now that you've done all the work and laid out all of the necessary information, you can begin to formulate your first draft. You may find it beneficial to also design an informal outline prior to writing your first draft, though this is not always necessary. Likewise, depending on how well you took to elaborating on your notes, much of your first draft should already be in motion. The only other issues that may need to be addressed are how you will unify the different items observed, transition paragraphs and constructing a sound and engaging introduction to grab your reader's attention as well as set the tone for your essay.
Here’s something you might not know about me. I have amazingly keen powers of observation. Right now, I see a student looking for a little help on an observation essay. Pretty good, huh?
But an observation essay isn’t just about listing what you see. In a way, it’s like narrative writing. You need to frame your observations in some type of story. You need to answer “so what?”
In other words, why are you writing the paper, and what should readers get from reading it?
In case my three-sentence explanation didn’t clear it all up for you, here’s an article with more information about writing observation essays: The Observation Essay: How to Make More Brilliant Observations.
I’ve also included the following three things in this post to help you with your observation essay:
- Two annotated observation essay examples to help you see how it’s done.
- Two additional example essays for your review.
- Links to articles with even more writing advice.
Let’s start with our annotated observation essay examples.
2 Observation Essay Examples to Watch Closely
As you read through these two observation essay examples, notice that both have a have a purpose for telling their story. In other words, the writer isn’t simply observing for the sake of observing.
There’s a point to the observation (one that the writer had in mind even before beginning the observation). The essay then frames the observation in a narrative format.
To help you see what I mean by this, I’ve included comments in both essays to highlight key sections, as well as each paper’s strengths and weaknesses.
For both observation essay examples, my commentary is below each paragraph. The specific text I’m discussing is notated with a bracket and a corresponding number [#]. When you see an asterisk in front of that at the end of a paragraph *[#], my comments apply to the preceding paragraph(s) as a whole.
Observation essay example #1: A Report on a Child Observation Project in a Preschool Class
A Report on Child Observation Project in a Preschool Class
For this project, I observed my mother’s preschool class for three hours, and three kids that she baby-sits on weekends for three hours. Most of the kids that are in the preschool class were three years old, but there was one five year old. The kids I helped babysit were two twin three year old girls, and one five year old. *
* When writing an observation essay, consider whether you should be writing a narrative paper that tells the story of your observation or a more scientific report.
This introduction is informative and reads like a scientific report because it discusses language acquisition and other aspects of child development.
Given that, this type of introduction is appropriate.
However, some scientific papers require the use of third person, and this paper uses first person. Make sure to check your assignment guidelines before you start writing.
(Read: How to Read and Understand an Essay Assignment.)
When I first arrived at the preschool, the kids seemed very shy towards me and they did not seem like they were very sociable. I was a stranger to them, and I would have to guess that all of the children were experiencing a little bit of stranger anxiety. I talked to my mother about how the children reacted at the beginning of the year when they did not know her and the parents left them there. She said that the children often would cry and become very uneasy. I believe that these would be signs of separation anxiety. *
 Most observation essays will detail events in chronological order. Here, the writer starts with the initial meeting of the children.
Even if they’re chronological, observation essays cannot simply be a list of things you observe. You still need a purpose.
* In this paragraph, the writer begins to explain the children’s behavior and separation anxiety.
Thus, it’s clear that this writer’s purpose is not to just observe kids for the sake of observation but to analyze their behavior based on materials studied in a specific class.
As I sat down to play with the children, I noticed one thing right away. The boys in the group were very wild and rambunctious, and the girls seemed to be shy and reserved. This would agree with what we have learned in class that boys will tend to be more outgoing, and girls will be more reserved. *
* In this brief paragraph, the writer again connects the observations to information learned in class, specifically regarding the differences in behavior between the girls and boys.
In preschool class, my mother has various stuffed animals, and I also noticed that the children that I helped babysit had a lot of stuffed animals. My mother often has puppet shows and the kids love it. I noticed one child was sitting at the table having a conversation with a stuffed beaver. The two twin girls I was babysitting had a giant stuffed bee, and I would chase after them with it and sting them. This shows what the book calls animistic thinking. According to the book, this kind of thinking is the belief that inanimate objects are alive. *
* The above paragraph connects the children’s behavior to animistic thinking using the example of the children’s play with stuffed animals.
(Read: 3 Types of Essay Support That Prove You Know Your Stuff.)
Another form of animistic thinking would be when my mother told a story about a leprechaun. When my mother asked where leprechauns lived, one child replied that, and I quote, “leprechauns live in the grass and run around from tree to tree, they are itsy bitsy and very hard to see.” These children believed that these creatures were real, but they just could not see them. But, the fun with the leprechauns had just begun. To test the children’s belief in the unrealistic, I had my mother and the kids make little pots, and then I had my mother tell all of the kids that if they were good, the leprechaun would leave them gold in their pot. While these kids were eating their snacks, I left and put gold candy in their pots, and then waited for their reactions and comments when they came back to see what had happened. I wish I could have recorded their reactions because some of them were hilarious. I noticed that one child jumped around and screamed that “he was here, he was here,” and another child was looking around the room trying to find the leprechaun. Overall, I found that my animistic thinking project worked well. To conclude my observations on animistic thinking, I found that most of the kids seemed to have beliefs based on what they sensed to be true, rather than on what would be logic or rational. *
* Here, the writer includes a more detailed discussion of observations to explain the concept of animistic thinking.
For the most part, the writer relies on visual observations, such as “one child jumped around and screamed” and “another child was looking around the room.”
The writer also includes some auditory observations through the use of children’s quotes, such as “he was here, he was here.”
Remember to include a variety of senses in your paper. Don’t simply rely on what you see.
 Language development between the three-year-old kids, and the five-year-old kids was amazing. There were some grammatical morpheme problems that I picked up on throughout my stay at the preschool and when I was baby-sitting the other girls. I did not notice many mistakes by the five-year-old girl, in fact she was very good with sentence structure and words. But, I did notice a lot of the three year old kids struggled with prepositions, suffixes, and prefixes. I few sentences I heard were, “he sitted down on me,” or “she hitted me with the beaver.” As you can see, the children are learning that they need to add the “ed” to the end of some words, but they do not know when it is and when it is not appropriate to do it yet. *
 Here, the writer might say something like “In addition…” at the beginning of the sentence to provide a smoother transition between paragraphs.
(Read: 97 Transition Words for Essays You Need to Know.)
Also, the use of “amazing” is problematic because it’s a subjective term. Instead, something more objective would make this a stronger statement.
* This paragraph begins a discussion of language development, and while the paragraph is missing a transition to smoothly link ideas between paragraphs, it does transition well between sentences within the paragraph.
 I noticed a lot of imitation in the children at the preschool. I guess I was an adult model for some of the children. I noticed that one child followed me around the room one time when I went to go to the bathroom. He did not go into the bathroom, but I did notice that everything I did when I walked back to the room, he did. Why do kids do that? The girls I babysat for played an annoying game on me one time. Just try to imagine two three-year-old twin girls repeating everything I said. I guess that would be a form of imitation. I also noticed imitation between the kids themselves. The naughty boys in the preschool seemed to almost copy each other when they would cause trouble. If one was standing on his chair, the other would stand on his chair. And, if one was playing in a certain area, then the other one would go to that area to play. The girls often imitated one another also. I noticed that one little girl went to go play with the dolls, and sure enough, most of the other girls went along to play with the dolls with her. In conclusion to imitation, I would imagine that imitation is a great way for children to learn about the world, and is often a sociable test to see how far that they can stretch the rules. I noticed that when a model is present, imitation is likely to take place. *
 Again, the above paragraph is missing a transition as it begins a discussion of a new topic. This sentence serves as a good topic sentence for the paragraph, however.
(Read: Here Is the Right Way and the Wrong Way to Write Topic Sentences.)
* At the end of the paragraph, the writer asserts a conclusion based on observations of children’s imitation, stating that imitation is likely to take place when a model is present.
This is an effective strategy as the writer is not simply describing what occurs in the classroom but is demonstrating critical thinking through analysis of the children’s behavior.
I spent a great deal of time watching how the children in the preschool played, and when I was baby-sitting, I did more playing than watching. In the book, play is described as “pleasurable activity engaged for its own sake.” I noticed that there was some parallel play. An example I found was when two boys were playing with Lego’s. The boys did not participate directly with one another, but they played alongside each other and other children while they were enjoying their Lego’s. There was some associative play, but I saw more of this in the girls. Some of the girls were playing with Barbie’s, and were having their own little soap opera going on. The girls were demonstrating associative play because they were playing and sharing with each other. I had the chance to participate in cooperative play when we played “duck, duck, goose!” Come on, you know the game. Well, I was pretty good at the game so they made me crawl on my knees. But, this showed cooperative play because the children were involved in structured games that involved rules. When I was baby-sitting, I was involved in some fantasy play. The twin three-year-old girls told me that I was the daddy, and one was the mommy, and the other was the kid, and the giant stuffed bee was also a kid. We played in a little area with toy stoves and washing machines and stuff. This is an example of fantasy play because these young girls believed that things were different than they really were.The last thing I noticed while observing the two twin girls was that there was a little bit of sibling rivalry. They both fought constantly for my attention. *
* The above paragraph includes a discussion of parallel play, associative play, and fantasy play.
However, the writer includes only a limited analysis of each and should develop these ideas further and separate them into individual paragraphs.
(Read: Anatomy of the Perfect Essay Paragraph Structure.)
Overall, I enjoyed observing the children, and enjoyed playing with them. I learned a lot about what kids do, and had the chance to experience it hands on. *
* The concluding paragraph is two sentences long and lacks development.
The writer should provide more information to wrap up the observations and conclusions about the children’s behavior.
(Read: How to Write a Killer Essay Conclusion.)
Observation essay example #2: An Observation Experiment at the Agriculture and Food Fair: People Using the Event to Making a Fashion Statement
 The place I observed is the Agriculture and Food Fair on February 13 and February 15 at 2 pm on both days.  Every February, St. Croix hosts the largest agricultural festival at Rudolph Shulterbrandt Agricultural Complex in Estate Lower Love. I observed the Agriculture Food Fair because all I heard about Fair was that it is a fashion show and everyone is dressed to impress. I mainly examined the entrance and the park. Being that I attended fair almost every year, I expected to see everyone dressed up but still see casual dressing. I argue that some locals on Saint Croix attend the Agriculture Fair just to make a fashion statement or appearance.
 This opening line is informative and appropriate for a more scientific report.
If the writer wanted to write a more narrative observation essay (which this essay seems to be), he or she might try opening with a story or anecdote about the fair and its patrons (to help grab the reader’s attention).
(Read: How to Write Good Hook Sentences.)
 Including background information about the subject being observed can be a useful strategy to help readers understand the writer’s reason behind the observation.
Here, the writer explains why he or she chose to observe the fashions on display at the fair.
 It was a usual, hot and sunny day on the fairgrounds. The delicious aroma of the different local foods was wafting through the air as I walk towards the crowded entrance. As I entered the fairgrounds the first thing I saw was of course a swarm of people everywhere. I then leaned against the gate and observed people and their whereabouts. Some by the different food booths, some dancing by the stage enjoying themselves, the kids playing in the bouncy, and some of the elders on the trolley. The others were just standing around associating with friends and family. Standing at the top I could’ve seen a bigger crowd of people just over the bridge. As I walked down the path it felt like I was on the runway because everyone was just standing on both sides just staring. Since it was so many people to observe all at the same time, I mainly focused on four groups of people. Group A was a group of girls that called themselves “The Chocolate Factory”, Group B was a group of boys that called themselves “Team Tru”, Families and different organizations. As I walked through the fair there was many people that I could have chosen from but these specific groups more address my topic because they not only show the overly dressed but those that dressed simple.
 Notice that the writer observes not only the sights but the aromas of the fair too.
Including a variety of senses is an effective strategy to help readers visualize the fair.
 Here, the writer focuses the essay by identifying the various types of groups that will be observed: the overly dressed and those who dress more simply.
(Read: How to Narrow a Topic and Write a Focused Paper.)
Each year some people seems to attend the Agriculture Fair to look cute and show off their clothing more than to enjoy our culture. Some locals see Fair more like a fashion show and a place to just chill with their friends. For example, a little boy’s outfit caught my eyes. He was sitting in a stroller wearing timberlands (boots), a baby jersey and long jeans. He wasn’t even walking or playing with the other kids just sitting in the stroller looking adorable.The other children were dressed as typical children in sundresses, jeans, and a t shirt. As I proceeded to cross the bridge I came in contact with these stunning young ladies better known as the “Chocolate Factory”. I know these young ladies from residence hall. When I first moved onto Residence Hall we all looked out for each other and decided to stick together. Of course I expected to see overly dressed individuals but these ladies took the cake! One was dressed in a cocktail dress with her back out and gladiator shoes. Another was dressed in a black and white bodycon dress with short pointed heels. The other three wore a crop top with boyfriend jeans, maxi skirt and pencil skirt. They also wore their hair in buns, box braids and curly sew-ins. If it was a fashion show they would be slaying the runway. *
* In the above paragraph, the writer describes the overly dressed patrons that appear a bit out of place at the fair.
These examples help illustrate the focus: that some people use the fair as a fashion show. They don’t visit the fair to see the culture.
Nowadays it is common to see men wearing chains, bracelets and earrings like women. But these guys that I saw overdid it with the jewelry. While I ate my Johnny cakes and chicken I observed a group of boys sitting on the bench. Two of the young men wore a white t-shirt with a khaki pants and some timberlands. The others wore a black t-shirt, dark jeans and some Jordan sneakers. The boys weren’t that bad when it came to their clothing, but what amazed me was their jewelry. Among them, they were several bracelets, long chains, and a ring on every finger. No exaggeration but almost every finger (except for the thumbs) had a ring! Other than the jewelry, the guys were a bit simple this year. My brothers are a part of “Team Tru,” and I’ve seen them dress up before. That is why I determine that the guys dressed pretty simple this year. *
* The above paragraph describes another group of people who parade through the fair as if they are in a fashion show.
Providing a number of examples helps the writer illustrate the key purpose of the paper. The writer does a good job staying focused.
(To double-check that your own essay stays on track, read What Is a Reverse Outline and Why Should You Use One?)
The best part of the fair was seeing the family members not only stick together but some of them dressed alike. Especially those dressed in African and madras fabrics. They was basically representing their culture through their clothing, which was awesome. A family that dresses together stays together. Kids that dress together always look cute, but when their parents dress in coordinating outfits, the final ensemble is memorable. Like my father always said, “All ah we is one,” and that’s exactly what this family portrayed to me. This one family that I focused on consist of five members. The mother wore an off the shoulder, cocktail African print dress with her natural hair flying in the wind and the father wore an African print shirt with a khaki pants and dress shoes. The teenage daughter wore an African print romper with gladiator shoes and the younger daughter wore a thin strap African print shirt and jean skirts with jelly bean shoes. The son wore something similar to his father except he wore Nike sneakers. They all walked with pep in their step happily down the corridor. *
On the other hand, the show can’t go on without the queens! There’s was no way that I could’ve passed them straight with their stunning dresses. As I was walking down the corridor I met with some of the contenders for Ms. UVI. They were all dressed in white dresses with a little bit of madras around their waist. They also had on some dashing heels. Majority of them were wearing wedges and few was wearing stilettos.They also wore their sash. Some of their hair was in sew-ins and messy hair buns. *
Last but not least I visited a few organizations. I visited Innovative booth, The University of the Virgin Islands and the National Guard. They all wore a t-shirt that represents their organization except for the National Guard. They wore their uniforms. Otherwise there was a lot of organizations or businesses in uniform. *
*, *,* Though the above paragraphs provide an overview of the groups of people the writer observed, the information reads much like a simple description.
The writer could improve these paragraphs by connecting them through additional discussions of how the people appear to be parading in a fashion show.
 Judging from the four groups that I observed, I can say that some people go to the fair to show their appearance and draw attention with the clothes they wear but appearance doesn’t matter to everyone. The simplest group was of course the organizations. I do feel being that they didn’t really have a choice is the reason for them dressing simple. I did learn that not everyone attends the fair to make a fashion statement but to enjoy the foods and activities provided. But I really wanted to know “Where did guys get the money for all those rings?” and “Is it really necessary?” I even watched some of my friends spend a lot of money on one outfit just to attend the fair and wear it for one day. Fair is already expensive so maybe if people didn’t spend so much on clothing, they could afford to try out many of the natural products, jewelry, food and local drinks from some of the vendors. *
 This first sentence of the concluding paragraph wraps up the focus of the paper: the idea that people often attend the fair to simply draw attention to their clothing.
* In the conclusion as a whole, the writer also asks a variety of questions to keep readers thinking about the subject. This use of questions is a great strategy to engage the reader.
The conclustion also ends the paper with finality, so it’s a good example of a solid conclusion.
(Read: 12 Essay Conclusion Examples to Help You Finish Strong.)
A Little Help From Your Friends
Hopefully, these observation essay examples have given you a few ideas for your own essay. But this post doesn’t stop with only two examples. Here are the other resources I promised.
Two additional observation essay examples:
Three articles with more writing tips:
Your friends at Kibin are here to do more than just observe too. Our editors will provide expert feedback to help you make your paper the best it can be.
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