Using the Senses to Bring Your Writing to Life
Description is one of the foundational elements of writing. Basic sentence structure and grammar help readers understand your writing, but description brings it to life. And you can’t have description without using your senses.
We take in the world through our senses. Our five primary senses — sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste — take in information from our environment and send it to our brains. Our brains interpret the sensory information based on past experiences and our ability to learn and make associations.
In writing, our senses work much the same way. Sensory description anchors our writing to the physical world and makes it come to life in our brains. In other words, the more we can “experience” our senses through description when we read, the more what we’re reading comes alive. And when that happens, we become more invested in it.
Writers have a tendency to rely heavily on sight when describing characters, places, and experiences. This makes sense (no pun intended) because the natural inclination is to paint a picture for readers, to describe what something or someone or some place looks like. While this is certainly important, it’s not the full story.
Imagine reading a story in which the writer describes the room a character wakes up in as "a bare, dark room he could cross in three steps." We may visualize a dark, closet-like room, but including description from other senses can change everything in only a few words. What happens if the room smells like mothballs? Or lemon-scented cleaner? Or his best friend’s cologne or his mother’s soap?
This doesn’t mean it’s necessary — or even a good idea — for the writer to spend paragraphs describing the room with every sense. But practicing thinking and writing with all five senses makes selectively creating the most impactful sensory descriptions easier and more natural. Instead of struggling to "visualize" with more than one sense, it will become second nature.
You don't need to use all five senses every time you add descriptive writing to your piece. But practicing how to describe using different senses makes writing about all of them become more and more familiar. And using interesting and compelling description makes your writing better.
It may not be as easy as writing whatever comes to mind. Researchers have found that the way we think about senses varies based on culture and language. English-language speakers typically have the easiest time describing sight and sound, but difficulty with taste.
Across cultures, smell is the most challenging sense to describe and explain. In fact, the only cultural group of the twenty studied that didn’t struggle to describe smell was a hunter-gatherer group from Australia.
Beyond creating richer descriptions in your writing, working to develop your sensory abilities has the added benefit of recalling experiences from the deep corners of your memories. Not only are these experiences brought to mind through association, but by spending time exploring these memories with each sense, you discover the textures, sounds, movements, tastes, and scents that color them.
Here’s how to use your senses in your writing:
Spend some time taking a sensory “inventory” before you start writing.
A sensory inventory is a brief check-in with each sense before you respond to a prompt or start writing. I find it helpful to jot down whatever comes to mind when I “visit” each sense. While it is tempting to ignore things that pop into my head that seem out of place or strange, I ignore the judgment and write it down anyway.
The more you take a sensory inventory, the more you'll notice that your brain makes interesting connections because of the inventory. In other words, while you may not use what you wrote exactly, your brain finds a way to use your sensory inventory as a jumping-off point for other description.
You could spend lots of time exploring each sense, but that can make the exercise difficult. I like to spend two minutes with each sense, but taking even thirty seconds or one minute to check in with each sense a few times a week has kept my sensory description muscle working.
Here’s what to do to get started:
Each day before your writing session, take a sensory inventory
Set a timer or alarm for one to two minutes and dedicate that time to ONE sense - Do this for all five senses
Incorporate some of your sensory inventory into your writing that day or use whatever associations the inventory brought to mind as you write