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How to Describe the Sense of Smell in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 5, 2020 • 3 min read

The human sense of smell is intimately connected with memory, which makes it a useful tool for writers. Scent is an incredibly evocative detail to explore in creative writing, but too often writers neglect the possibilities that scent descriptions open up in terms of establishing setting and emotion in their work.



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How to Use the Sense of Smell to Enhance Your Writing

Scent can be a deceptively difficult sense to relay in your writing, but when communicated well in combination with other sensory details, it can ground readers in your work. Here are some tips for describing smell in your writing:

  • Rely on memory. One of the best ways to describe smells in a nuanced and relatable way is to recall specific scents from memory. Before you describe a smell in a piece of writing, take a moment to brainstorm and freewrite descriptors of scents from your memory and choose from what you’ve generated.
  • Go outside. If you’re having trouble coming up with novel ways to describe smells in your writing, take a walk and pay attention to smells. Sometimes we take for granted the plethora of smells we come across every day. Deliberately paying attention to what you’re smelling can greatly improve how you describe smells in your work.
  • Subvert expectations. Highlight smells that may seem to conflict with the tone of what you’re writing. Smell can often surprise us, and including a sweet-smelling lilac smell in a tense and dramatic scene can add texture and tension to your writing.
  • Link smell to larger themes. Scents can be used to highlight larger themes and specific character traits in your work. Be deliberate about how you are using smell in your writing to build larger themes and draw your readers’ attention to events and locations that may reoccur in your work.

How to Describe Smell in Writing

It can be tempting to describe smells in basically the same way every time they occur in your writing. Push against this instinct and start to explore the texture and nuance of different scents. Here are some tips for describing smell in your work:

  • Vary your vocabulary. Instead of saying a character smelled something, describe the specific redolence they encounter. Is a smell simply sweet or is it saccharine? Is a smell overwhelming and unescapable or does it subtly waft through the room? These are important distinctions that you should consider when describing scents in your work.
  • Link other senses. Scent is linked to our other senses, particularly taste. Describe how scents either complement or diverge from what a character might see or hear in a given scene. Relaying a variety of senses in your writing can give your reader a comprehensive picture of the scene you are laying out for them.
  • Think outside the box. Sometimes smells surprise us. Don’t settle for lazy clichés about how we think certain things should smell. Be specific about the nuances of smell and how it hits a character’s nose and affects their emotional state.
  • Describe scents in detail. Olfaction is a complicated process and no smell is simple. As any perfumer will tell you, smells have multiple layers complete with base notes and top notes—like the taste of fine wine. Dig into the complexities of smell as you describe them in order to draw your readers in.
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20 Adjectives for Describing Scents

There are plenty of words available to you when you’re attempting to describe a smell. You can always consult a thesaurus or other word list to look for descriptive words that can help relay a nuanced and specific smell. Here’s a list of words that can help with your descriptive writing as you discuss smells:

  1. Fishy
  2. Putrid
  3. Rancid
  4. Savory
  5. Ambrosial
  6. Piquant
  7. Gamy
  8. Skunky
  9. Flowery
  10. Lemony
  11. Antiseptic
  12. Musty
  13. Fruity
  14. Woodsy
  15. Musky
  16. Acrid
  17. Sweet-smelling
  18. Stinking
  19. Minty
  20. Floral

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