The Observation Essay: How to Make More Brilliant Observations

When I arrived at the monkey exhibit at the zoo, it was 3:00 p.m., and there weren’t many people around. There was only one small girl wearing white shorts and blue flip flops and her mom, who was holding a bag filled with snacks and souvenirs from the zoo.

When I looked for the monkeys, I didn’t see any at first. When I stepped closer, though, I could finally see that there were two monkeys at the back of the enclosure, sitting on one of the branches.


The brief paragraphs above could easily be taken from an observation essay. But what’s the first thing you think of when you read them? (Other than the fact that it’s probably been a long time since you’ve been to the zoo.)

Most people reading the example paragraphs are going to think, “so what?”

Even though the goal of an observation essay is to describe your observations, it must also have a purpose. This example doesn’t seem to have one (other than to tell readers that the writer went to the zoo).

If you’re looking for a little more clarification on how to add the “so what” into your paper, here are a few tips for writing a brilliant observation essay.

The Observation Essay: How to Make More Brilliant Observations

observation essay
“magellan” by fPat, (CC BY 2.0)

When you hear the words “observation essay,” it’s easy to think, “How difficult can it be? All I have to do is write about what I see.”

Well, yes and no.

You do have to write about what you see, but there’s more to it than that.

Let’s get focused (literally), and I’ll explain what I mean.

What’s your point?

If you’re writing an observation essay, it might sound like you should be writing a descriptive paper because you’re writing about your surroundings. Your goal isn’t simply to write description, though.

You need to have a purpose.

Before you sit down some place and start jotting down notes about everything around you, it’s essential that you figure out the point you want to make.

Let’s say you go to the zoo to observe the monkey exhibit. Are you going to observe the monkeys, the visitors, or both?

Your decision will be based on the goal of your paper. Maybe you’re studying animal behavior, and you want to see how a specific type of monkey behaves during feeding time.

Maybe you’re studying the similarities between humans and monkeys, and you want to observe both humans and monkeys to see if you can find any patterns.

Whatever you decide to observe, know why you’re observing before you begin.

The observation process starts with focused questions

Be prepared to observe your subject with a list of focused questions. Don’t show up with a few scrap pieces of paper and a pen, thinking you’re ready to get to work.

This lack of preparation will likely mean that you’ll just start writing down everything you see. While this type of note-taking might be appropriate for some general descriptions of your surroundings, it’s not enough for developing the main paragraphs of your observation essay.

Instead, develop a list of focused and purposeful questions to answer during your observation.

Here’s what I mean.

If you’re observing the monkey exhibit, it’s great to describe the living conditions, the surrounding exhibits, and the people visiting. But this is just background information. There’s no other purpose for this other than to set the stage.

On the other hand, if you have a purpose in mind, you can instead focus your notes on answering specific questions. Here are a few examples:

  • When is feeding time?
  • What happens when food is brought out?
  • Do the monkeys share or fight?
  • Do they eat in groups, or do they eat alone?
  • Do they wait their turn or rush to grab their share?
  • Can you compare this to any human behaviors?

For example, if the monkeys fight for their meals, maybe this reminds you of free pizza night on campus when everyone rushes to get a slice (or two) before it’s gone.

See the difference? Preparing focused questions before you observe your subject means you’ll have more specific details and examples in place to help you write a better observation essay.

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Writing an Observation Essay, from Outline to Thesis

observation essay
“Feeding time” by Noneotuho, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After you’ve completed your observations, review your notes and begin outlining your ideas.

Start with the thesis statement. This will help you focus your thoughts and decide which information will work best to support your thesis.

Next, look for evidence to support your thesis.

For instance, if you’re writing about how feeding time at the monkey exhibit looks like free pizza night on campus, select several examples that help illustrate your point.

You might write about how the monkeys all rush to the food at once (just like college students). You might then discuss your observations about how monkeys (much like college students) often attempt to get their share of the food with little regard to those around them.

Finally, work on ideas for your introduction and conclusion. (Remember, you can write essays in any order. You don’t always have to write the introduction first.)

Consider starting your paper with a unique story or anecdote based on your observations and ending with more about what you’ve learned (again, based on your observations). Starting with a good hook is always a plus too!

Want to see what a finished observation essay looks like? Check out these annotated example observation essays and this example observational report.

If you’re writing a scientific field report rather than a basic observation essay, check out Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Writing a Field Report.

No More Monkey Business

observation essay

Okay, so you’ve reviewed your course notes and assignment guidelines. You’ve reviewed this article and the additional resources I’ve included.

You can’t delay the inevitable any longer. It’s finally time to get to the business of writing your observation essay. So find something to observe, and start observing! (Don’t forget to have a purpose in mind before you start.)

If, after you’ve finished your draft, you’re still not sure if you’ve written with purpose, let our editors help!

Happy observing, and happy writing!

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