“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

3 Ways Senses Can Improve Your Writing

I signed up for another class at The Writer’s Center and, as usual, it’s forcing me to be more disciplined in my writing.

improve your writing

Many of the writing tips are now familiar to me (after taking a bunch of classes there), but it’s great to be reminded of some of the standard rules. One rule in particular has been helping improve my writing—use all five senses in your writing.

3 Ways Senses Can Improve Your Writing

I’ve been thinking about it all week, which made me think that Write Practice readers might appreciate a reminder about this rule as well.

Here are some of the ways using all five senses can enhance your descriptive writing:

1. Senses add emotion

Using all five senses in a scene is a great way to add emotion because, among other things, it shows the character’s heightened presence in the moment.

When you first fall in love, isn’t it true that the colors are brighter and each touch is electrifying?  What about when you return to a place from your childhood—can’t a simple smell make you teary eyed?

Use that.  

2. Senses help transport readers

One classmate, in particular, inspired me to write this post.

In ten minutes, she wrote a beautiful scene about running in the bitter cold in D.C.  She used these images of frigidity, darkness, and isolation to also tell a story about how lonely city life can be at times.  I could not only envision the city streets, but I was transported into the moment she described.  I could feel the cold, hear my footsteps, etc. I was honestly thinking about it for days.

And the teacher pointed out that the scene was so effective, in part, because she used all of the senses.

I mean, isn’t this one of the reasons many of us love to read?  Because we get to experience places and times that may otherwise be unavailable to us?

Effective description of the senses can help you do that for your reader—transport her to your character’s world.

3. Senses allow you to create art

Call me biased, but I think writing is a special form of art.  Painters can only appeal to your eyes.  Musicians—ears.  They are limited.

But as a writer, you have the unique privilege to reach all five of your readers’ senses.  It’s a challenge, but when it’s done well, I don’t think there’s any other way to describe the outcome other than art.

Use the senses to create your art.

Do you have a favorite piece of writing that stimulates your senses? Let us know in the comments below.

PRACTICE

Think of a memorable place.  Take fifteen minutes to describe it, using all five senses.  Share in the comments section.

 

 

About Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

  • Julie Mayerson Brown

    I often think how writing is an expressive form of art. Using two or three of the 5 senses is a way to immerse the reader in the scene. Thank you for these good tips!

  • The wonderful science fiction/fantasy author Poul Anderson said that each scene should use, at the very least, three senses. It’s a good rule of thumb. Five senses would be pushing it for most fiction with the exception of scenes of high drama, danger, or romance.

    • Agreed. You gotta keep the story moving!

  • Gary G Little

    I agree, totally, but …

    The vocabulary is limited in how to describe sensations. For instance, I once wrote a story where three boys were skipping rocks across a pond. What’s the sound those pebbles make each time they skip across the water? It’s not a skip. It’s not a snap. Or a pop. Or a bang or a blam. The vocabulary just isn’t there to describe the sound of a rock when it is at the proper angle to skip across the surface. In the story I used my own term, snick, because to me it sounds like snick, but I got a lot of flak (hmmm where did flak come from) caved in and changed it. But … I should have said … Baloney it sounds like snick so’s it stays snick.

    Someone moves their chair on tiled a surface and makes that nerve shivering sound that sends shivers up your back. Ok I just described it but what word do I use? Is there a word? I dare say there isn’t. But, thinking of one or describing the shudder is … Interesting. Scritch? Scooch? Oh my and now you have all those lovely active verbs to invent.

    How does a pillow feel? How does a nice warm pile of covers feel after that 2AM trip to the toilette and your pooch decides to move in?

    Puppy breath. You know right after the puppy has gotten into the salmon.

    The feel of your love in your arms after days, weeks, of separation. His or her smell.

    Can you hear blue? Can you feel cinnamon? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind, or sing a chord with a rainbow?

    • WritingBoy

      The ‘vocabulary’, Gary, is not limited, as you put it. It’s apparent you don’t own a thesaurus and haven’t read Russian or French writers.

      I simply can’t believe you suggest the ‘vocabulary’ isn’t there. Unbelievable.

      • Gary G Little

        Thank you. Gauntlet thrown and challenge accepted. My reply:

        The feel of barbershop. No not the place where your dad went to get a haircut, but four guys singing close harmony. There is the overtone, screaming softly like a banshee high up in the rafters, higher in pitch than the tenor. Use your peripheral listening to hear the overtone. Don’t listen at it, but listen to the side and there, just above your good ear, is the overtone. Down below, on the other end, is the undertone, down there in your belly, just behind the button, you feel it more than you hear it. Four voices locking on pitch and tone, four voices matching on vowel sounds, oh there are so many reasons why it happens, but when it happens and all that “physics” happens, it just creates a beautiful blanket of sound that surrounds you, that warms you, that tickles your toes.

        Picture a wall of men in front of you, standing on risers, aged from 18 to 80. A pitch pipe blows, and ninety-five male voices in close harmony sing “Can you hear the voice of the children”. Softly they start, the harmonies building, reverberating from the back walls, from the side walls, down from the ceiling, a delicious sound, a warm rich satisfying sound. Ninety-five voices crescendo, and you feel the hair on your arms raise, goose bumps, as the fortissimo resounds, wraps you and wraps you again. A break, no sound, then suddenly soft so soft that you have to strain to hear ninety-five men in harmony and into another fortissimo, and a final soft chord, so soft, so delicious, it just seems to melt. Your ears ringing, your eyes swelling, your hands clapping, your butt leaves the chair, and you’re standing, telling the chorus “thank you” for that piece of musical chocolate.

        • WritingBoy

          Well done Gary. And all in about ten or fifteen minutes.

          Limited vocabulary, my arse!

          • Gary G Little

            Perhaps in my original post I should have said “‘sometimes’ the vocabulary is not there.” In this case, step away from the piano, and describe a seventh chord. Dominance? Major or minor?, It’s not like color, where many parts of the spectrum has a descriptive; red, crimson, pink, pinkish.

          • WritingBoy

            You’re a great thinker Gary.

  • Louis Jrn

    Senses are incredible…… It connect even your spirit to work…..Watching him light the fire in the dark Conner under the tree behind the house. The breeze blew, I can hear the flame of the fire whispering……..

  • LaCresha Lawson

    Ahhhhh, the senses, yes. One smell comes from my deployment in Saudi Arabia when I was in the Air Force. It was so hot! (And, I live in Arizona.) So, I will smell that “burning sand smell.” PSAB Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia will always come to mind. Glad I have the memory and will never forget.

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  • Christine

    “Now which kind of doughnut do you want,” he asked her.

    My gaze shifted from the man to the little girl beside him. She had that deer-in-the-headlights look I often see on children’s faces as they stand at our counter, pressured to make a choice. Her huge brown eyes stared at our offering, seeing way too much.

    I tapped my foot just a bit, hoping my impatience didn’t show. Silently I pleaded, Listen dad, uncle, or whoever you are. This is just a little kid. We have 45 different varieties of doughnuts on these shelves. I know you think you’re doing her a favor by letting her choose for herself, but the poor girl is mesmerized. Pick one for her!

    My co-worker was filling a drive-through order; cold December air flooded inside as she opened the window and swirled around my legs. My feet hurt. Long day.

    I shifted a bit, but still we both stood there. I thought of the restocking that needed to be done before my 3pm quitting time. I gave him a small shrug, hoping he’d say, “Give her that one.”

    But no, he leaned over and asked her again. “Which one do you want?” Still trapped in sensory overload, she stared mutely at the shelves. He looked up at me again. “Maybe you could point to each one and she’ll say yes when she comes to the one she wants.”

    The customer is always right, I reminded myself, as I worked my finger across the top shelf, then down to the next one. My finger was in the middle of the third shelf, pointing to the vanilla-iced doughnuts with sprinkles on top, when her eyes lit up and she nodded. Surprise.

    Children almost always want the sprinkled ones. I’ve observed that they almost always eat the sprinkles off and leave most of the doughnut, too. I picked up the doughnut with a waxie, catching a whiff of the sweet vanilla icing, and set it on his tray, asking about drinks. (Hoping I wouldn’t have to rattle off our twenty flavors of beverages for her, too.) But he was more health-conscious; he ordered a carton of milk for her.

    He ordered a large coffee with two cream for himself. I quickly poured it, inhaling the aroma of our dark Arabica brew. Ah…I could almost taste it! Maybe I’d sneak a cup myself later.

    I heard a faint beep from my co-worker’s headset and she repeated her spiel. “Welcome to Coffee & Delights. How may I help you?” Soon the drive through window was open again, letting in another draft of cold air.

    By this time I restocking to-go cups and fantasizing about warm bath water scented with lavender.

  • Valerie Runyan

    “Tryst”

    The first thing that hits you when you open the door of a motel room is the smell; it smells of years of the same bedspread, the same drapes, the same dresser and the same carpet. All motel rooms look the same; the same fake wooden nightstand, the same plastic lamps and the same bolted down limited channel television. In a motel room you don’t want to touch anything; not for fear of germs but for fear of absorbing all the things you are certain went on in that very room and it makes one shudder. In a motel room you can hear everything; the freeway traffic, the item falling into the vending machine bin and the voices next door. The notion of eating anything in a motel room is a natural appetite suppressant.

  • Valerie Runyan

    Using the senses to write a story really forces you to concentrate on vocabulary in order to paint the portrait from your mind onto the page- vocabulary is not the key it is the only key.

  • DiyaSaini

    ‘Focus’, was the keyword, in the meeting. The ‘Commander in Chief’, was the best description came to me, for the one adjourning us. Watch on the wall had seemed to have forgotten to mark it’s presence. Which made me wonder, whether the tic-toc sound watches were better. 10 minutes break was out of question, where lunch break had already been sidelined & sublimed.

    The adjoining cafeterias cutlery music, capped the voices in the room, seemed only inviting me out. The aroma of the food teased me to it’s fullest. My tummy had given up, the inner lining of it had got stuck with the opposite lining, dissolving all the parts in between. As if, hit by a sudden sandstorm, making my vision distorted & mouth drier & drier. Saliva felt like a dry sprinkler, in front of the task given to it.
    My abdomen, growling grew louder & deeper. Nervously catching the expressions of people to my left & right, had my focus gone for a toss . Next time, keeping earplugs was a survival necessity, came to me as an antidote.

    To top it all, my instincts had stopped functioning. Shuffling in my seat, had gone out of my hand. My expressions, had also ganged against me.
    Suddenly a loud thump next to me, by the commander in chief, jolted the sleepy heads & made the awakened ones more tighter.

    He bended towards me saying…

    “Is everything alright..?”

    Further completing it, without waiting for my response…

    “Take a break, Infact let’s all of us have one now…”

    His words were music to my ears. The expressions on others, were thanking me for saving their lives.

  • Sana Damani

    I spent my childhood in a desert and the smell of sand was ubiquitous. Sunday mornings were always quieter because everyone slept in. The still, silent air combined with the smell of dust always felt like home, like peace, to me, especially after we got back from a long stay away.

    Other days, there was always the bustle of Mom dragging me and my brother out of bed, getting us dressed for school in our warm, crisp, freshly-ironed uniforms which only made me feel sleepier, feeding us crunchy, sweet cereal for breakfast and getting us out of the door in time to get to our vast, yellow school and learn to be somebody.

    But Sunday was a day to be quiet and to sleep and to breathe. To just be.

  • Wanda Kiernan

    It’s always great to be reminded about using the senses in our writing. This was a fun practice.

    It was mid April in Seville. The sun was setting, and the night air was cool. While strolling along narrow cobble stoned streets we were drawn towards the sound of flamenco guitar and discovered an open interior courtyard surrounded by centuries old white washed buildings. The smell of saffron rice, grilled fish, and briny olives wafted into the courtyard from the surrounding restaurants. The savory mixed with the citrusy. The courtyard had large cement planters with built in benches. They were covered in blue, red, yellow, and orange mosaics. An orange tree stood in the center of each planter. The fruit hung low and heavy. The over ripened oranges covered the ground. We sat on the cold bench, held each other close to keep warm, and breathed in the citrusy air.

  • Peter McGarvey

    Snow crunching underfoot on a blisteringly cold Ontario morning. The rich tang of brewing coffee as I enter the kitchen. The pale streak of dawn glowing across the horizon. A floorboard complains loudly when stepped on in a distant part of the house.

  • Sophie Gersten

    Have you ever tried to feel a crowd? Standing among hundreds of different people and being a part of it? Last Kreator concert, many heated guys and a bunch of crazy girls, all dressed in black colors. So many eyes, trying to catch each move of guitarist’s fingers. So many rebels, that divided themselves from “society” and created another one (even unwittingly!).

    Sweat falling from the singer’s forehead just describes the huge amount of performer’s creative efforts. Drummer is forcing drum kit to produce sounds somewhat identical to the shaman sounds. The crowd is moving like the sea, creating bizarre waves.

    Tension is growing. “Impossible brutality, impossible brutality” the crowd chants. The volume is incredible. Loudspeakers are jumping, the scene is trembling.

    Till the last “Await it’s dawning without fear”. Then the music stops and the crowd start roaring and screaming in approvingly united way. All united. Together.

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