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Using Your Senses to Write Well

How to incorporate the five senses into your writing 

by Marie Valentine, Editor

See, taste, touch, smell, hear.

I wrote these words on a sticky note and put it on my writing desk until I absorbed them. The five senses are how we perceive the world, and through them writers translate experience to a reader. Without the senses, you cannot transmit the truth of your vision, and a reader can’t engage their imagination as personally. So use your senses liberally and often in your writing.

Slow Down and Smell the Landfill

Sense serves good purpose in writing methodology. We see things and through our observations, we use language to describe the experience. It’s the basic premise of written communication. Rely on the concrete, and you can count on reader comprehension.

If your inner editor tells you that your story’s pace is too fast, slow it down by adding sense description. Go beyond sight and engage the olfactory or auditory. Addressing sense can temper the pace as well as further concretize your imaginary world. Sense descriptions help root the reader into a scene.

Pause to smell the linden blossoms, or the nearby landfill if need be. (Smell is the sense that gets overlooked most often.) If the character is in motion, tell us about the air on his skin or the sweat sticking his t-shirt. (Touch.) What’s for lunch? Tell us how that chowder’s thicker and saltier than the other food truck’s. (Taste.) And is that car alarm making your character’s migraine pulse a little? (Hear.)

Break Up TMI with Sense Engagement

Often in a writer’s eagerness to get the story moving, plot is served via information dump. This tragedy is avoidable with some sense finessing of the exposition. Background info downloads can be made more appetizing when broken up into bite-size pieces. Writers can integrate these morsels via graceful engagement of the senses.

If you offer your readers a little sensual treat, like the smell of a bakery as the protagonist rushes past, you allot subtlety to how you reveal the city setting. If you describe the peacock hues of the sister’s bedazzled gown, you give readers a vainglorious characterization through wardrobe as well as a yummy visual.

Word Card Deck for Writer’s Block

A writer and performer friend, Anja Notanja, recently enlightened me on the word deck for writers. It is a tool to get the writing process going. You can incorporate the deck into writing exercises or construct micro stories using the words shuffled at random. The act of creating the deck allows you to identify words you like to think about that inspire you, and which are part of your usual writing or vocabulary or voice.

The concept comes from Michael McClure’s July 17, 1976 “Personal Universe Deck” lecture at Naropa. To make a word deck, you can download the sense grid and get started.

Basically, you choose 50 favorite or provocative words, 10 relating to each sense, and write them on individual cards. If you don’t force it, this will happen naturally as long as you are in a comfortable place and enjoy free associating.

Employ your cards as a device to help balance the senses in the story. If you feel like it is lacking in a certain area, pick a sense to bump up. Maybe you could use a “smell.” If you color-code your words by sense when you make them, you can reach for a yellow/smell card. “Stank” = James caught a whiff of the landfill stank as he waited at the red light.

Say you need to add a “touch” word (red): “Filth” = He rolled up his window but still felt an invisible film of filth settle on the back of his hands and forearms.

And so on. It’s a fun practice that creates spontaneity, making your writing more surprising. Adding sensual layers to your story also makes it more believable, while contributing to your authentic voice by using your preferred vocabulary.


Marie enjoys experimentation in literature and developing writers’ unique styles. To work with her, request her by name in this form.

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