Wordsmith Wednesday–Sensory Description


I am a visual, hands-on learner. My husband is more auditory. If I’m sitting through a lecture, I need to take notes in order to incorporate the key points being delivered. David will just sit, listen and absorb.

In the same way, people differ in their favored modes of sensory perception. You may want to touch or taste, while your friend will associate sounds, colors or aromas with a place or event. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your descriptions in terms of the senses. Make sure you haven’t just focused on those things that speak to you.

I’d like to share with you some examples from the opening chapter of my novel, “The Sin of His Father.” The protagonist is at the deathbed of his mother. Here’s how I’ve tried to incorporate the senses:

Sight: “The dim light threw his mother’s profile into an eerie silhouette. It was as though someone had let the air out of a grotesque balloon–the parody of an Irish washer woman paraded down Columbus Drive in downtown Chicago on St. Paddy’s day…”

Taste: “…the taste of bitter coffee he’d sipped a few hours earlier crept up his esophagus and caused him to gag.”

Hearing: “Ellen’s roommate breathed slowly before turning in her sleep. That was the only sound Matt heard, aside from his mother’s raspy breathing, the bubbles of the oxygen humidifier and the gentle hiss of the gas escaping around the small prongs sticking in her nose.”

Touch: “He fondled the smooth bowl of the pipe that waited for his attention in the pocket of his jacket and longed to step outside to indulge his habit.”

Smell: “His mother’s fetid breath stroked his cheek. He wanted to flee the close air of the room and take off into the night.”

Attention to sensory descriptions throughout the process of rewriting is an excellent way to enrich your manuscript.

Writing exercise. Select a key scene from one of your stories or a poem and rewrite it, utilizing all of the senses in your descriptions.

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4 thoughts on “Wordsmith Wednesday–Sensory Description

  1. Excellent advise and examples. We need these exercises not only to train new writers but to refresh those who have written for many years. As we grow older, our senses decrease – the sharp sight dulls in fuzzy lines and bright white dims to yellow and beige; sounds lose their clarity and muddle together, while the olfactory receptors shrink, leaving a nose that remembers yesterday only when strong aromas like chocolate brownies and Channel No 5 tease it, and misses the delicate lily of the valley or violet that our grandmothers gave us when we were little. By doing writing exercises that make us conscious of the senses, we actually encorage our brains t stimulate them and keep them alive. Go forth good writers, take a deep sniffing breath, run your fingers over rough and smooth bark, listen to the tonal variety of rustling leaves on different trees; lay on grass by a pond and watch for one hour without speaking. Then go home and write about it.

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