How to Write an Observation Paragraph
If you’ve been asked to write one or more observation paragraphs, you’re probably either counting your blessings – as in, “how hard can it be?’’ – or counting the number of sentences until you’re done. In this case, let’s make it a challenge and say five. Supervisors are frequently called upon to prepare performance evaluations of their employees, and these evaluations often contain observations of an employee literally in action, carrying out some specific job task or function. Your job now is to write a dazzling paragraph based upon what you observed -- unleashing your powers of descriptive writing.
Write a topic sentence – or the general topic that the paragraph will address – and a limiting idea or one that limits or narrows the topic. As adults, we’ve been told since fourth grade that a topic sentence is important because it sets the all-important tone of the paragraph. But remember that it’s the limiting idea that is the pulse of the paragraph. You will develop and expound upon that idea. Let’s assume that as a licensed day care provider, you’ve been asked to observe a student intern as she cares for a group of 2-year-olds. Your topic sentence might read: “Nancy is a calm and focused day care practitioner who is attentive to children, responds directly and authoritatively and keeps her young charges on-task despite repeated distractions.”
Review the limiting ideas for precision and clarity. Can you expound on the clause beginning with “who is attentive to children”? If so, you probably have enough material to write a substantive observation paragraph, using Nancy’s “calm and focused” demeanor as subtext to these bigger points.
Evaluate the eight methods of developing a paragraph (still relevant from fourth grade on up): process, examples, comparison-contrast, classification, cause and effect, definition, description and narration. Any one of these methods should help you achieve your goal: to write a cohesive, unified paragraph that easily flows from one thought to the next.
Select what you believe to be the best approach based upon what you observed, and start writing your paragraph. Keep in mind that you might wish to use a combination of these paragraph development techniques.
Keep your audience top-of-mind. So while your paragraph should be concrete and factual, don’t be shy about infusing it with humor and personality, if apropos. For example, a final sentence might read: “With what seemed like practiced precision, Nancy simultaneously took a tray of chicken nuggets out of the oven, grabbed a full juice cup just as it was about to topple from the counter and then dodged to her right just in time to avert a spoonful of macaroni and cheese from landing on her shoulder. Such calm yet energetic moves seem to make her ideally suited for day care or a career as a professional gymnast.”
Scrutinize the paragraph, and check every sentence (if not every word) for relevancy. Does every sentence amplify and advance the topic sentence? Polish and revise the paragraph until it fairly and accurately captures your observation experience.
There are no “right” or “wrong” number of sentences to include in a paragraph – many journalists still favor one-sentence paragraphs – but four or five sentences is a good rule of thumb for a substantive paragraph.
Use vivid language in your observation paragraph, but be careful not to make inferences or value judgments. Saying that someone is “rushing” might be referring to their normal speed of motion. Likewise, saying that someone “appears nervous” because she is “sweating” might be an inaccurate conclusion; the person might in fact have high blood pressure or some other physical ailment that is causing her to sweat.