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How to Use the Five Senses in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

To really create descriptions that will stay with your reader and improve your writing skills, you’ll need to learn how to describe the sensory details of all five of your senses.

Description is one of the most basic tools in a writer’s toolkit. You can’t get very far in a story, a poem, or a narrative essay if you can’t convey what the things you’re describing are like. For the most part, we humans rely on our senses to take in and interpret the world. At the same time, many beginning writers rely only on the sense of sight to describe a scene. But if you’re only writing with sight, you’re ignoring four of the five senses.



How to Write With Sight

It’s fine to describe how things look. In fact, sight might be the most important sense when it comes to descriptive writing. While a photographer might be able to take in an entire scene at once, a writer has to choose what details to focus on and place them in the most effective order. That means you’ll want to be judicious about what details you choose to highlight. The ocean may be blue, bricks may be red, but are these really the details you want to call to the reader’s attention?

  • Writing Prompt. Stand in front of your house (or apartment, or cabin, or yurt) and create a list of 20 things you notice about it. Write down colors, shapes, details. Be as specific as you can. When you’re done, pick the three or four of the most interesting things you noticed, and use those to write a description of the building. Remember, if you’re trying to create a strong visual sense of scene, try highlighting unusual or specific details. Rather than calling attention to the redness of the brick wall, why not call out the ivy that’s windings its way across the cracked surface of the bricks?
  • Writing Tip. One good technique to keep in mind is describing things indirectly: To convey the brightness of the sun, you could say directly that the sun is bright, but you could also describe the way the light from the sun causes the glass windows to shine solid white.

How to Write With Taste

Taste is often considered the most difficult sense to write about, but it can also be one of the most powerful. For one, it’s extremely subjective: We all may know (or think we know) what a fresh apple tastes like, for instance, but how do you describe that taste? Is it the crispness, the tiny burst of acidity amidst the sweetness? Or is the apple bland because it is not fresh?

Another difficulty is finding the right time to deploy taste imagery. As with smell, taste is extremely personal and evocative, so you’ll want to be careful to avoid distracting the reader with excessive descriptions.

  • Writing Prompt. Try putting the reader into the mindset of your main character while they’re eating. What does the first coffee of the day taste like to a tired caffeine addict? Is it different from the last coffee? Try describing the sensation of tasting your favorite childhood snack for the first time in many years—what’s it feel like to experience that taste again?
  • Writing Tip. One common technique that writers often use is the deliberate mixing of sensory words for effect. For instance, you might describe the zesty taste of a lemon as bright (a visual description) or the last light dissolving over the horizon as a whimper (an auditory description).

How to Write With Touch

Touch is an easy sense to overlook. You’re always touching something, even if it’s just your clothes. (Even if you’re not wearing clothes! Air has its own feeling, and different temperatures and levels of humidity create different physical sensations.)

  • Writing Prompt. Write about what it feels like to sit in your office chair. How does your body feel? Where are your points of contact? The places where you feel sore or stiff? Now write about how it feels to sit in your favorite chair. How does your body feel different? Where is your weight situated?
  • Writing Tip. The sense of touch is about more than the way things feel in your hands, although texture is an important part of it. Touch also captures sensations that typically occur internally, like your experience of temperature, pain, and pleasure.

How to Write With Smell

The sense of smell is very closely connected to memory, and a good writer can use that to their advantage. Walking into your grandmother’s house and immediately recognizing the smell of her cooking (or her flowery perfume) can succinctly evoke a powerful emotional response. Similarly, the smell of something unpleasant—the acrid stench of motor oil, the rancid, vinegary smell of expired milk—can provoke strong, visceral reactions in a reader.

  • Writing Prompt. As a creative writing exercise, go to a place you know well: A familiar park, the mall, the office, the library. Make a list of the smells that define that place for you. The piney scent of the trees, the antiseptic smell of cleaning fluids, the mustiness of old paper and bookbinding, and the buttery smell of cookies baking, so on.
  • Writing Tip. As with perfume and cologne, a little bit goes a long way. You don’t (generally) want to overwhelm the reader with olfactory descriptions, but a few well-placed details can create a powerful impression.

How to Write With Sound

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Sound is a great sense to use to create a mood. Consider two scenes of the same forest: You might describe the chirping of many small birds, the rustle of small mammals moving through the softly falling leaves, or the whispering of a breeze through the trees. This creates a particular atmosphere, one that seems peaceful and maybe even a little magical. Now consider another set of sounds from the same forest. Somewhere in the distance you hear the howl of an unidentifiable animal. Nearer to you, the creak of an old branch, followed by the snap of a twig. The wind, when you hear it, seems to moan. The same two descriptions of a forest can create entirely different atmospheres with sensory language.

  • Writing Prompt. Carry a notebook with you as you go about your normal day. Pay attention to the sounds you notice and write them down as you go. Does your coffeemaker whistle, or would you say it hisses? Do the sirens of emergency vehicles wail, or perhaps blare? Does your door squeak? The more you can become attentive to these things, the more you’ll be able to incorporate them into your writing.
  • Writing Tip. Use onomatopoeia to help capture the sound of a scene: The plop of a frog dropping into a pond, the clink of two champagne glasses, the crackle of a dry log on a hot fire, the whoosh of a car racing by. In general, though, you’ll want to be judicious about using onomatopoeia, unless you’re going for a deliberately cheesy, comic book-type effect.

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