Writing Prompts that Exercise Observation Powers

Snapshot Safari

In your notebook collect a variety of images from an “outing” around your house or school. Include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Be sure to keep each entry short (a single phrase will usually do), and don’t dwell on the significance of the image. Your object is simply to collect the images as a sensory record of your experience. Remember that poetry is not always confined by matters of narrative or logical continuity; seemingly disjointed images and sensations can sometimes provide a clarity and illumination which linear thoughts cannot.

Sound Safari

Like the Snapshot Safari but with sounds alone. Just walk, listen, and write. The most challenging part of this exercise is to figure out how to spell the sounds.

Treasure Box of Priceless Things

The teacher places a variety of “everyday objects” in a box (eraser, paper clip, wash cloth, shoe lace, chicken bone, button, house key, etc.) As the box is passed around, students are asked to reach into the box and feel around until they feel an object they want to write about.

Walk a Mile in Something Else’s Shoes

Imagine what it would be like to be some mundane object, like a shoe or a coffee

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Your Elbow

Come up with thirteen different ways of looking at a mundane subject. You may slow down by way # seven, but don’t give up.

Treasure Hunts and Riddles

The teacher hides an object somewhere in the room and then describes its location in the form of a riddle. Students can also simply play a form of I-Spy by creating riddle poems about the everyday objects in the room. The emphasis should be more on choice of details rather than literary quality.

Everyday Object As Self Portrait

Generate a list of characteristics of yourself. Include internal and external characteristics. (Be honest, this list is just for brainstorming, and you won’t be required to share it unless you want to.) After your list is complete, choose an everyday object that you feel shares a common characteristic(s) with you. Make a list of other characteristics of the object. Now write a poem that illustrates your comparison. You may start by simply saying, “I am like . . . ”


Write down a list of questions to ask of some mundane subject. You can speak directly to the subject or else ask the questions generally. This list of questions might prove to be a poem in itself, or it may trigger a poem that provides an answer to one or more of the questions.

Multi-Voice Dialogue Poem

Similar to Inquisition, except this time your object actually answers back! Write a dialogue poem in which you conduct an interview or carry on a conversation with a mundane object. Your two (or more) voices can speak simultaneously or alternate, passing the lines back and forth.

Lesson for a Boy

Trochee | trips from | long to | short;
From | long to | long in | solemn | sort
Slow | Spondee | stalks; strong | foot, yet | ill able
Ever to | come up with | Dactyl tri | syllable
Iamb | ics march | from short | to long;
With a leap | and a bound | the swift An | apests throng.

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The author of this little verse is “unknown.” I’ve seen variations. I may have  altered it slightly for my own purposes over the years. AW


A Simile is like a song,
It’s as easy to remember.
A metaphor makes soft white snow
Sifted sugar in December.
A little alliteration
lets the lesson lilt and linger.
A rake that’s been personified
scrapes its bony fingers.
Hyperbole exaggerates:
“Her crying caused a flood!”
Onomatopoeia imitates:
“Kabang, Kerplunk,. Kathud.”

Before You Rhyme,
Please Take The Time
To Read These Wise Didactic Lines

The masculine is bright and light.
The feminine is brighten, lighten.
Triple rhyme is brightening, lightening.
Forced rhyme to the ear is frightening.

External rhyme comes at the end.
Internal brightens light within.
“Within and end don’t rhyme,” you say.
But that’s the way some poets play:
The perfect rhyme sounds right on time;
The near rhyme, though, is not quite home.

Unless your aim’s the funny bone
Best leave the multi-rhymes alone.
The reason multies humor us is
They batter us like blunderbusses.

Beware young poets. Take your time.
Lighten, brighten, light or bright;
Don’t use a word because it rhymes;
Choose a word because it’s right.

Allan Wolf


by Carl Sandburg

Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your
Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how
many you had before you lost or won.
Arithmetic is seven eleven all good children go to heaven—or five
six bundle of sticks.
Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand
to your pencil to your paper till you get the answer.
Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and
you can look out of the window and see the blue sky— or the
answer is wrong and you have to start all over and try again
and see how it comes out this time.
If you take a number and double it and double it again and then
double it a few more times, the number gets bigger and bigger
and goes higher and higher and only arithmetic can tell you
what the number is when you decide to quit doubling.
Arithmetic is where you have to multiply— and you carry the
multiplication table in your head and hope you won’t lose it.
If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you
eat one and a striped zebra with streaks all over him eats the
other, how many animal crackers will you have if somebody
offers you five six seven and you say No no no and you say
Nay nay nay and you say Nix nix nix?
If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she
gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is
better in arithmetic, you or your mother?

And don’t forget:

Math Lesson. From Upside Down and Inside Out by Bobbi Katz (Boyds Mills Press, 1992)

The Green Basilisk Lizard

The green basilisk lizard is also called a plumed or doublecrested basilisk; but its amazing ability to run on water gives this species its most recognizable moniker: the Jesus Christ lizard.

Abundant in the tropical rain forests of Central America, from southern Mexico to Panama, green basilisks spend much of their time in the trees and are never far from a body of water. When threatened, they can drop from a tree into the water and sprint, upright, about 5 feet (1.5 meters) per second across the surface.

To accomplish this, they have long toes on their rear feet with fringes of skin that unfurl in the water, increasing surface area. As they rapidly churn their legs, they slap their splayed feet hard against the water, creating a tiny air pocket that keeps them from sinking, provided they maintain their speed. They can move along the surface like this for 15 feet (4.5 meters) or more. When gravity eventually does take over, the basilisk resorts to its excellent swimming skills to continue its flight.

Part of the iguana family, green basilisks grow to about 2 feet (61 centimeters) in length, including their long, whip-like tail. Males have distinctive, high crests on their heads and backs, which they use to impress females.

Pregnant females prepare a shallow trench where they lay up to 20 eggs. The mother then leaves the eggs to hatch on their own. Hatchlings are born with the ability to run (on land and water), climb, and swim.

Green basilisks are omnivores, surviving on a diet of plant material, insects, fruit, and small vertebrates. They are common throughout their range and have no special status, but abundant natural predators like snakes and birds keep these amazing lizards on their toes.

National Geographic Website


by Simon Wolf

I am a green basilisk
sleeping on a rock in a Central American
rain forest next to a pool.
The shrill cry of a hawk rents the still air
like a knife wakening me.
I stay stock still
not daring even to breathe.
But the hawk’s sharp eye still spots me.
As it dives I jump up
my strong hind legs granting me speed
as I scamper towards the water. A searing pain
shoots up my tail as the hawk’s curved beak
clips it. Finally I reach the water’s edge
and jump into it. For a moment I am engulfed
by cold clear water then I bob up like a cork.
I put one foot on the surface and push,
my foot flaps opening.
The water goes up to my ankle but I swing
my other leg in a smooth downward
arc and don’t sink. The hawk is still hard
on my bleeding tail. Solid ground is only
four feet away. Three now. Two. One.
Now I’m on dry land in the shelter of the ferns.
The hawk lets out an agonized skree
and flies off.