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.


Looking for Writing Help

Can’t wait to dive in!

Are you looking for writing help? My writing friend gave me a stack of Writer’s Digest magazines on Thursday, bringing my total to 14. 14 glossy collections of insightful advice, commentary and exercises from experienced writers who for the most part, know their art and the industry pretty well.

These magazines are useful to me. Back in the spring of 2012, I used them to correct my arm form while running. I guiltily admit that I haven’t used them as the publisher presumably intends: to effectively to improve my writing. But after a day spent in partial procrastination and office cleaning, I have formulated a plan.

How long would it take me to read a slim publication like Writer’s Digest? 30 minutes? An hour if I took notes?

I’m going to read each issue and take notes, maybe even make a video with highlights of the best tips and advice. That way I know I’ll remember the info better – because I learn when I write things down. I’ll have the information and tips preserved for later use and be able to share it with other writers who are short on time like me.


My completed homework:

September 2010 – The Big 10 Issue

September 2011 – Best-selling Secrets

October 2011 – Get Your Agent

How to Organize Writing Ideas

I’m always looking for ways to organize writing ideas. I have a lot of them and yes, not all the ideas are great. But I do a variety of writing, from magazine articles to crafts, educational market fiction and non-fiction, and I hope to produce books for the trade market, too.

That’s why it’s important to write down my ideas somewhere because you never know which ones will be perfect for a quick magazine article or a reading comprehension passage. There are a few ways I organize writing ideas.

It might seem like spending time organizing is taking time away from writing. It might seem like procrastination. But I think organizing prevents wasted time and increasing productivity because ideas are always ready and waiting for you.

Try these systems out, some combination will hopefully work. Feel free to share your ideas, too.


My super quick way of organizing ideas is to use the Things app and jot down ideas in either Fiction or Non-Fiction. I don’t edit or limit my ideas, I just put them down so I don’t forget.

Table of Contents

I handwrite in journals almost every day, and have for years, which means I have several journals. After I’ve jotted down an idea in Things, at some point I take the time to add some details in my journal. Instead of turning page by page in my journals looking for where I’ve jotted down an idea or an outline, I make sure to dedicate the first few pages of my journals to a table of contents. Then when I write in my journal, I fill out the table of contents.

Writing Ideas Ebook

I just started this version of organizing ideas, and I’m excited. I created an ebook in Pages and then inserted a Table of Contents. (Yes, the table of contents is SO KEY.) Then I created different headings in the ebook based on the kinds of writing I plan to do. Next, I went to my ideas in the Things app and started putting the various ideas into different categories. Some ideas went more than one place, which is good, because I like to be able to use one idea for a variety of outlets. I love the electronic table of contents, because I can click on the page number and go right to the specific section. I can also create sub-headings as I use this system more.

organize writing ideas

Stay organized!

What systems do you use to organize writing ideas?

Middle Grade Summer Reading List

middle grade summer reading

What are you reading this summer?

This summer, my critique group is working through a middle grade summer reading list. We’re trying to read a book a week, and we are answering questions about the book when we’re done. Here’s our summer reading list. The questions we answer for each book are below the list.

Middle Grade Summer Reading List

  • The Nameless City (The Nameless City, #1), Hicks, Faith Erin.
  • Belly Up (FunJungle, #1), Gibbs, Stuart.
  • All Summer Long, Larson, Hope Larson.
  • Knife’s Edge (Four Points #2), Larson, Hope.
  • Compass South (Four Points #1), Larson, Hope.
  • Summer of the Monkeys, Rawls, Wilson.
  • The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex, Adam.
  • Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, #1), Carlson, Caroline
  • The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (The League of Princes, #1), Healy, Christopher *
  • Once Upon a Marigold (Upon a Marigold, #1), Ferris, Jean.
  • Amal Unbound: A Novel, Saeed, Aisha.
  • Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor, #1), Townsend, Jessica.
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Barnhill, Kelly.
  • Running on the Roof of the World, Butterworth, Jess.
  • Sheets, Thummler, Brenna.
  • Orphan Island, Snyder, Laurel.
  • The Seven Tales of Trinket, Thomas, Shelley Moore.
  • Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave, White, Jen.

Questions for Middle Grade Summer Reading List

  1. Did you like it?
  2. Was there a point when it hooked you? What page?
  3. What was your favorite part?
  4. Did you find any part boring? What section, plot line, or character?
  5. What surprised you?
  6. Rate the opening – on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the best opening ever!)
  7. Rate the ending – on a scale of 1 to 5
  8. Did you like the writing style?
  9. Did anything seem cliché?
  10. What did you learn from this book?
  11. Did the story remind you of any other books?

If you have any book suggestions, please feel free to add them here!

How to Be a Published Writer

The secret to being a published writer isn’t just writing – it’s writing and submitted. Recently, I received an email from someone asking for advice on how to be a published writer, and the first thing I suggested was that they should write every day. Every Day.

The second step on the path to publication is to submit your writing. If you want to be a published writer, you need to send your work out to agents, editors, magazines, publishers, journals, and even reputable websites.

I should specify that as a writer, I’m not writing for free, I’m looking for paid published opportunities. Many other writers are happy to write for free, but writing is not only my passion it’s also my source of income.

Writing is hard work, and I know if I’ve written every day. But if you have a busy life (who doesn’t?) you can lose track of how much you’ve submitted in a week or month and how successful you are. You need to keep track either on paper or on a spreadsheet or lipstick marks on your mirror.

Track Your Submissions

I keep track of my submissions and over the past several years because it gives me a boost when I feel worried. I also like tracking because it helps me make sure I’m keeping my effort levels high. Here are my 2017 results.

And here are my stats this far into 2018


be a published writer


How would your submission rates compare? You can see my submission rates from previous years in these posts:

Submission Rates for 2016

Submissions, Rejections, and Acceptances

How to Improve

I know that I have about a 10% acceptance rate as a result of tracking my submissions. I’d love to improve that rate. Here’s what I’m doing:

  • Taking courses to improve my writing
  • Better understand what a publisher or agent or magazine likes
  • Find new outlets I haven’t considered
  • Produce a variety of high quality projects
  • Submit frequently


Children’s Book Publishers and Reading Lists

If you’re interested in writing for children, it’s essential to learn what kinds of books different children’s book publishers produce. You need to know if they are the right house to give your story life. But how do you figure out if the publisher is right for you and if you are right for that publisher? You read their books.

There are tons of children’s book publishers out there, but one of my favorite is Lee and Low. Not only do they focus on multicultural content, they also focus on emotional learning and awareness. And they produce incredible reading lists!

Here’s the Lee and Low 2018 diverse summer reading list. 


And here is the Lee and Low Social and Emotional Diverse reading list. 


Both lists contain books from PreK to 8, so there is something for every reader to read, and something for every writer to read. There really isn’t a substitute for reading as a way to find out what different children’s book publishers want. You can learn about topics, characters, language, and themes. You can be inspired and improve your own writing.


Pay I want to write non-fiction books. If you want to write non-fiction, it is helpful to study how the back matter is presented in each book. One thing I find valuable is reading the bibliographies at the back of the book. I like to see what resources an author has used and I challenge myself to check out their reference material and see if my interpretation matches theirs.

If you don’t want to spend a fortune on all these books, I recommend requesting the books from your library all at once, picking them up at the library, and scheduling a read-and-critique session with your fellow writers. Pay attention to what the other readers in your group notice. What did they see that you overlooked? Consider the book from title to end pages and learn all you can.


Can You Debate the Meaning of Words?

meaning of words

What do words mean?

While a lot of things are uncertain and fluid in our world, I wonder if we can debate the meaning of words.

My oldest son has a pretty decent vocabulary, but in seventh grade, he missed several words on a recent vocabulary quiz. I looked over the list. His grade surprised me grade, because I saw words that I would expect (assume, anticipate?) him to know.

“I knew the words, but the definitions weren’t ones I use,” he explained. (excused? justified?)

I couldn’t help smiling at his answer. I also didn’t hesitate to challenge him on it.

“You know, words have established definitions. It’s not really ‘your definitions’ versus the ones on this sheet. You need to understand these definitions,” I insisted.

Books About Words

He knew better than to argue back. But the conversation sparked an inner debate in my own mind. And of course the inner debate got me thinking about a book, specifically the book Frindle.

My selection for my book club in January was Word by Word, a book about dictionaries. I learned some interesting things from that book. I learned the dictionary describes how words are used and what they mean. The dictionary doesn’t proscribe what words mean. That was a really significant distinction in my mind.

I feel words do have accepted meanings, but that those meanings can change. And that my son’s problem is not that he didn’t know what the words meant, but that he hadn’t learned the accepted answers he needed to learn for that particular quiz.

What’s a word that has changed meaning from the first time you’ve learned it until how you (or we) use it today?


Tools for Writing a Novel

I’ve been to many conferences were successful writers share their tools for writing a novel, and I now have my own set to share. I am working hard to get my current manuscript done – and basic proofreading corrections made – before February 26.

The novel is called DNF (Did Not Finish) and it’s middle grade contemporary fiction. Maybe I will post a teaser when it’s out on submission.

Because I love checklists and measuring my productivity, I’m using a checklist log to record my daily activity.

tools for writing a novel


This isn’t a word count tracker, although I do have a handy little Numbers file that can function as a word count tracker just like the one NaNoWriMo provides on its website. I decided not to focus on words for this draft of my manuscript. Instead I focus on WHEN I am in the timeline of the story.

Paper Tools

I needed some other tools for writing a novel, and because I’m focusing on WHEN, I needed a calendar. My main character is a runner, so I use a training plan. And because this story has a large cast of characters (many more than in Dare Club) I needed a character list.

Each one of these tools helps me stay on track, minimize confusion, and prevents the kind of writer’s block that isn’t about ‘not having ideas’ but forgetting where you are in the story. I’ve found the calendar to be especially helpful.

Online Tools

My story takes place in a specific year, I use Weather Underground‘s website to find the weather for each of my key scenes. I also look online for popular baby names of the year 2000, and for popular songs, apps, and television shows. I’m sort of a stickler for minimizing anachronisms.

What tools for writing a novel do you use?


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.


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.

Twelve Days of Writing or Keep Writing Over the Holidays

It’s so busy right now. You might let your writing take a back seat to the demands of the season, but I encourage you to stay strong and find some time to work on your craft. Here’s a little something I whipped up for the young writer that I am coaching. The Twelve Days of Writing is my gift for you, writer struggling through the season. Many happy returns!


Here’s a pdf of the 12 Days of Writing so you can download, print, and keep writing!