Improve Your Writing: Senses

Writing conferences offer a lot of great tips on how to improve your writing. One tip that’s always stayed with me is to use at least three different sensory descriptions in a scene. Using at least three senses helps readers visualize the scene better and it makes the scene more real.

Here’s a snapshot of a wetlands in Florida. Using sensory descriptions, how would you describe it?

improve your writing senses

You might mention the colors, but what about sounds? The swishing grass and maybe clicking insects. Now what about touch? Maybe the humid air settling on your skin, or the clinging net of a spider web on your face. And smell? I’ll never forget the slight odor of rot that stuck to the back of my throat.

I also remember reading that when people read about a smell, their brain activity is the same as when people actually smell that scent. So, mentioning sensory experiences like smells basically tricks the brain – or convinces the brain – that the person is in the scene, smelling the same aromas and fragrances if they are nice ones, or the same putrid stinks.

Also, in broadening the diversity of our writing and reading, how do we use descriptions that will appeal to readers of different backgrounds? What kinds of descriptions of food smells, hair care product scents, fabric textures, footwear discomfort, background sounds, and more will reveal our cultural, gender, and class biases?

Practice to Improve Your Writing

It takes practice to improve your writing. If you don’t, you’ll just write “he saw” or “she heard” all the time. We need practice describing what people feel in ways that aren’t cliche. And how do you describe the smell of the earth after rain, or the smell of freshly baked bread, without just saying “you know that smell?”

I’m trying to practice my sensory descriptions by writing sensory sentences each day. Not just sentences about my feelings, or thoughts, but sentences that focus in on a sensory experience I’ve had that day. Something I’ve seen, smelled, heard, tasted, or touched. Even if I don’t use the actual sentences I write in a story, I’m getting some writing done. And I’m practicing my observational skills of the world around me, which is good for any writer to do.

Here are two examples from July:

1.The clock on the wall in my office ticks and rocks out of rhythm with the swing of the pendulum.

2. I ate a fresh tomato from the garden and it was sun-hot and huskier in flavor.

3. The carpet under my desk feels flatter under my feet than the carpet over by the printer.

Try writing sensory sentences and see how they improve your writing.

 

What a Writing Coach Offers

The writer’s playing field

In 2017, I embarked on a new part of the writer’s journey and became a writing coach. My first client is actually a young man interested in a challenging creative writing program in the area. We are working together to help him set goals and achieve them.

One aspect of his writing that doesn’t work: creative ideas.

As his writing coach, I feel my job is really focused on accountability and productivity.

Almost all writers and creatives could use a little boost in setting reasonable, measurable goals and working to meet those goals. There are lots of little steps between stating a goal and achieving a goal. Sometimes, the ability to achieve a goal is not within our power, it rests in some one else’s hands.

So what’s it like to meet with a writing coach?

First, we discussed some of his hopes and dreams. Then we talked about what he likes to write, doesn’t like to write, and his habits. We also discussed what and how much he reads. After I learned about those aspects of his writing life – and I learn new things in each session – I developed some systems to help him show off his strengths as well as confront his weaknesses.

Coaching Sessions

A typical session for us looks like this:

  • Free write for 5 minutes on a prompt that I choose, usually focused around describing a scene or memory focused around an emotion. We’ve written about moments when we’ve been happy, angry, embarrassed, guilty, and sad. The goal here is to capture the events that caused the feelings and to access the emotion in our brains and bring it to life on the page. Five minutes is short – we’ve got to write quickly and efficiently, as well as honestly.
  • Next, we dive in to the current project. My client shares any new sections, I read them over and offer positive comments as well as constructive criticism on areas that could be improved. We discuss plot, dialogue, the classic show-don’t-tell problem, and setting. We also spend a lot of time hashing out what endings might work and WHY.
  • After his projects, I like to share a short piece of my own writing and ask him to offer feedback and critique. I think this is really important for a young writer. My goals here are to model HOW to accept critique and how to think about revising existing works.
  • As our session wraps up, we discuss next steps. My client, like many writers of all ages, doesn’t relish revising, but that is always one of his assignments. Other goals include selecting a publication to submit to or working on a synopsis of his current story.

As his writing coach, I never tell him what to write. I do encourage him to develop good habits related to writing. Habits like reading and writing every day. Some other best practices I encourage him to adopt are completing his stories (even ones that aren’t his favorite) and being open to writing different versions so he can really find the one that resonates.

Goals

For the new year, I offered four options for big goals. I’m offering you these four goals, too, and I encourage you to attempt them and share your progress!

  1. Write a 500 word story with a plot.
  2. Revise a story.
  3. Re-write a familiar story in your style.
  4. Submit a story to a publication.

For more writing encouragement, check out my Twelve Days of Writing post and get busy.