Today’s writing advice is something that I often need to be reminded of – which is remembering to use all of the senses while I write.
For reference, we as humans have five basic physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These are our ‘tools’ for experiencing the wonderful world around us. The more of them we’re missing, the more difficult everyday life can be.
This post can go two ways, and while I’m mainly referring to using all of the senses in our descriptions when we write fiction, I’d also like to first touch on how important it is to engage as many senses as possible in the actual act of writing itself.
When it comes to actually sitting down and writing, the largest two senses that I use are sight (to see what I’m typing) and touch (to sit and type). Everyone has different writing processes (for ex. some people write through dictation and use their voices more than their fingers), but in general, those are the two most used senses while writing.
I usually overlook the other ones, but recently I’ve been reminded of how helpful it can be to engage some of the lesser-used senses.
Adding sound into my writing routine through instrumentals and custom playlists helps me focus on my story and get drawn into its mood. Adding smells like a scented candle or essential oils can help train my brain into recognizing that it’s time to write. Some people add taste through a special snack or drink they only have during their writing sessions.
Any repeated association you have with a sense during your writing is going to help build a habit. And habits almost always lead to more productivity! They help tell our brains that it’s time to buckle down and do that specific thing associated with the habit. It’s easier to get into a flow state and focus.
Of course, there’s such a thing as going overboard, and if you’re spending more time completing your writing routine than actually writing, then maybe there are things in your routine that don’t need to be there. But everyone’s ideal process is going to look different, and that’s okay! What’s important is that it works as best is possible for you.
So if you’re stuck in a rut with your writing routine, you can always try and find creative ways to engage senses that you’re not currently using. Oftentimes, that can shake things up enough to get your creativity flowing and your mind engaged again. It’s worth a try!
And it’s one way that using more than just the ‘common’ senses can help with our writing: by using them to create a solid writing routine and think outside the box. But I also want to focus on them when it comes to our prose itself.
Because humans have all five senses, and our characters are supposed to think, feel, and act as humans (or if your characters aren’t technically human, bear with me a moment), then our characters should also use a variety of senses. This seems obvious, but is easy to forget when writing description.
I often catch myself falling into the rut of merely describing what my character sees. I describe how another character’s face looks, how the sunset looks on the water, how the grass is blowing on the hillside…and that’s good! Sight is a huge – arguably the largest – part of description.
But just like real life is vivid and expansive and experienced through many senses, it should be the same way in our stories. We want our stories to feel as real as possible to those reading. And so they must feel real to our characters as well.
And that’s the key. What does real life look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like to your character? Maybe your characters aren’t human, but then what senses do they have? Maybe your characters don’t have the use of all their senses (ex. blind, deaf, or paralyzed), but then which ones do they still rely on? And have those senses sharpened as a result?
Every character is going to use their senses a little differently. Some will naturally pay more attention to sounds (perhaps they’re musically-talented), but place lower trust in their sight (are they colorblind?).
Others may associate certain smells very strongly with certain things and notice them more easily (did their mother wear that perfume and now they think of her every time they’re around roses?).
Still more may put far more effort into critiquing tastes than many characters would (maybe they grew up in a culinary-focused family).
Whether writing in first-person or third-person perspective, it’s always useful to think through who our current narrating character is. What have they experienced? What has their life been like so far, and what’s their background? What sorts of details are they more likely to notice, and with which senses?
The more senses we use in our descriptions, the more vivid our stories feel. When we not only describe seeing the grass moving, but feeling the chilly breeze blowing it, smelling the salt from the ocean nearby, hearing wind whistle past us, and maybe even tasting the fresh air.
It’s like every sense we use is a color. And the more colors we’re able to smoothly paint with, the deeper and more nuanced our stories will appear in our minds’ eye.
To continue with that analogy, it’s definitely possible to go overboard with senses here as well and muddy our stories. We don’t need long descriptions of what your character is feeling from every sense in every paragraph. And the descriptions from each sense don’t need to be even (most of us naturally hear a lot more than we taste, for instance).
But we do need a variety. Give us those details when we’re entering new areas, or when there are important details you want to highlight. Take a moment and really imagine the place that your character is. What do they see? If they close their eyes, what can they hear? Are there notable smells present? Do they touch something specific? Are there any tastes that linger on their tongue?
Even if we don’t end up using every single one of those details in our stories, it’s beneficial for us as writers to have them in our minds as well. The more real our story world is to us, the more authentically we can write about it, and the better readers can then picture it.
It really does come down to the details. Whether those details are seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted – it requires a vivid variety of them to make a story come to life.
Remembering this has really helped my writing – especially when I struggle with too short of pacing and not enough description. I might run out of things that my character sees to describe, but I can use other senses and paint a more vivid picture. Or maybe I have enough description, but it’s lacking, and the picture it paints isn’t very immersive. In that case, I can try swapping out some details using other senses, and it almost always fixes it.
Maybe this isn’t ever an issue to most writers, but to me, being given this bit of advice has made enough of a difference in my writing – my descriptions particularly – that I keep a Post-it with the five senses on my desk to remind myself.
When I’m struggling with descriptions or with feeling immersed in my story world, I can stop and ask, what details am I leaving out? What senses am I forgetting to use? How could my character be experiencing their world that I’m disregarding?
The result is a more genuine, vivid story for me to write about, and readers to dive into.
So, what are your thoughts on using all the senses while you write? Do you tend to use some more than others? Are there ones you usually forget? I’d love to hear about your writing experiences, so feel free to tell me about them in the comments below!