What’s Your O.Q.?

Everyone’s heard of I.Q., or intelligence quotient, which is a score based on a test that a person can take to measure her intelligence. And then there’s E.Q., the emotional quotient, which refers to a person’s ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. There’s a test you can take for that, too. I’d like to introduce the O.Q., for observational quotient. Unfortunately, there’s no test to measure your O.Q, since I just made up the idea now. At this point, you have to self-assess. But when it comes to writing fiction, considering whether your O.Q is genius-level or remedial is a good start.

That’s because capturing essential details in a story is one of the skills that separates weak writers from strong ones. And if you do not have the ability to notice your own world, it will be difficult to conjure up the right details in fiction.

Literature makes us better noticers of life.

So, let me ask you (and myself!), what do you know of your neighborhood? What trees grow there? What birds live there? What does it smell like? What do the people look like? And when you travel to other towns or cities or countries, do you take note of the details? Is your nose in your computer? Is your phone constantly pressed against the side of your head? These are questions you need to seriously consider. Don’t just brush them off. Because honestly, these are just the beginning questions, the ones for the remedial observer, really. Knowing the world around you is fundamental to your life and your writing, and especially important for acquiring essential details, because only when you have a baseline can you really begin to notice the details that are unique and that will set your writing apart from the others.

I consider myself a pretty good observer, but was humbled at a conference I attended a couple of years ago. The audience was shown the video below and asked to pay very careful attention to the instructions and count how many times the people in the video bounced the ball. It was an eye-opener for me because it demonstrated how easy it was to miss even the most obvious details. What did that mean for those of a more subtle nature?

If you didn’t fail this test, congrats. You’re already an excellent observer. Keep up the good work. If you failed, as I did. It may be time reconsider your presence in the world. It might be time to read this: 12 Ways to Become More Conscious. But you can also just start small. Go for a walk today and put your cellphone on mute. While you walk, notice five different trees or flowers. Look up. (I did this yesterday and saw that someone had painted a large eye high on the bark of a tree that’s right outside my house, a tree I have walked past hundreds of times.) Notice five different smells. Pick up five unusual characteristics from people you see on the street. Take note of five different sounds you hear right now. Tomorrow at work, when your boss talks to you, purposely try to find something unique about his/her appearance that you haven’t noticed before. When you ride the bus or subway, look up and take note of the people around you. Engage your senses. Read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. Be actively aware in your observations.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes,

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.

Do you strongly agree? Agree? Disagree? Strongly Disagree?

Photo: vestman / Flickr Creative Commons

8 Comments on “What’s Your O.Q.?”

  1. Strongly Agree.
    “Literature makes us better noticers of life.” also Strongly Agree.
    Couple years ago i tried to write about fiction, but I couldn’t find a good stories, describing people was a little easy and talking about them in the story wasn’t that hard, but when it comes to the main story I was very weak!!! any suggestions?

    • For me, everything about fiction is hard! The more I write, the more I understand how little I know. It’s overwhelming. However, my frustration is tempered by my experience — the more I write and read about writing, the more I “get it.” And that keeps me going. Writing is not easy. You have to work at it like a job. You are an engineer, yes? How long did it take you to master that? Perhaps you are still mastering it. Writing is the same. You have to work at it day after day. Keep working at it. That’s my advice to you.

  2. Makes me wonder how much of OQ, as you call it, is something you’re born with and how much can be acquired through practice. You know: nature vs. nurture. Nice post. And IMHO: getting attuned to scooping up more details can improve anyone’s life, not just writers and aspiring writers.

    • I think it’s both. Nature and nurture. Some of it you’re born with and the other stuff, well, it like other skills — you have to work at it, develop it, hone it, tune it.

  3. Got me again! I must really live in a box. This is a skill that you can develop, with practice. Spies go through training where they have to sit in a place, and then later are asked what the people looked like, what they were wearing, color of hair, etc. I think writing helps you to realize what you actually feel, and helps you to see the things that are coming to life in your mind, but for me, it hasn’t helped me navigate the real world – physical or emotional.

  4. Some of us notice other things, it doesn’t mean we’re unobservant, exactly. We notice things that matter to us, but they may not be the same things that matter to other people. Regardless, you’re so right about OQ being really important to good writing!

  5. Pingback: Get Up Close and Observe | Text Heavy | Tracy Staedter

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