Use your senses in your writing

IMG_20150826_143603955

As a writer who has extensive tech writing experience, I admit that I sometimes have a difficult time with scene description.

I blame it on my Technical Writing training. Tech writing is all about “just the facts, ma’am.” It’s all about the who, what, when, where, and how of an action. And pretty much nothing else.

Creative (and I’m including memoir writing) is all about the facts and then some (ma’am.) When you write for entertainment you need to use the senses – the smell, visual, taste, hearing and sight information that you have literally at your fingertips. You also have to add thought and reason to any action.

As a tech writer, when I write directions, I’ll write something like:

  • Add one teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter.

Quick, efficient, absolute no doubt as to want I want the action to be.

But when I write creatively, constant directives like the one above can get pretty darn boring unless you surround them with that something extra. When we read for pleasure, we want to put ourselves into the scene. We want to know what motivates the character and we also want a reason to continue reading.

Here’s a creative writing approach to the above direction of adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to some batter.

Damn it, like always, she was running late. This cake had to be started, she still needed a shower, and even now, she wasn’t sure what she had that was clean enough to wear in public. While reaching for the jar of cinnamon, she tipped over a small bottle of opened vanilla. A tiny waft of warmed vanilla fragrance lifting on the breeze from the fan in the kitchen’s corner reached her. She closed her eyes and deeply inhaled. Suddenly she was no longer in her tiny New York apartment with the leaky shower and the cracked ceiling, but rather she was transported to her grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen where she used to spend her childhood summers.

“A pinch of this and a pinch of that,” her grandmother sang and danced as she added her special combination of spices to the cake batter in the ancient jadeite bowl. “Baking is a living art, never trust a book. You have to feel and smell the ingredients to know what’s right.”

Every cake her Grandmother had made had been perfect. A blend of spices and magic that seemed to capture the beauty of a cloudless sky, the roses near the front steps, a cool glass of tea on a hot day.

Pulled back to her apartment by a car’s shrill horn, she looked out her window, to the traffic, the grey, and the noise that defined New York City. Sighing, she picked up the silver measuring spoons and tipped the cinnamon into the correct spoon’s well . After leveling it off, she added the spice to the batter in the very same jadeite bowl that had been left to her in her grandmother’s will. She refocused on the recipes, one-half teaspoon of baking soda was still needed.

There was no time to feel or smell the ingredients, at least not today. She had to get this cake done for the faculty meeting if she hoped to have any chance of impressing the new department chair.

In the first example, I’ve put forward an action. Do this.

In the second example I’ve taken that action and put it into story form by adding sensory information. It is now: This is done because.

The word count for the direction is 8. The word count for the story is 316.

They both cover the same action.

The directions tell you what to do, the story asks you to put information together to come up with what you think is going to happen.

If you want to write stories then you’ll have to up your game by adding these types of details.

Think of this when you are writing (especially those who come from a technical or reporter background.) Infuse your writing with sensory details. Sprinkle memories. Plant the seed of a plot.

Give your reader a joyous reason to turn to the next page.

 

Update: In looking over this post, I clearly used the word “she” far too often in my example. I’m leaving it as is to show you that, *everyone* needs a good edit on their work.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

40 thoughts on “Use your senses in your writing

  1. Wendy, very nice. I’m not what I consider a technical writer but often struggle with sharing my feelings with my readers. Yes, I love being immersed in a story, just as you shared, but sometimes feel too vulnerable when I put myself out there. I know it’s some I must overcome to become a great writer. Thanks for the insight.

    • I often tell my tech writing students that Technical Writing is the safest type of writing there is. You get to hide behind all the rules and you don’t get to use your voice. I get it. transitioning from that type of writing to creative writing can be tough. Very tough. Keep at it, practice, practice, practice and it will get easier.

  2. Wow, nice advice! I am also not good at creating creative story, maybe because I was exposed more on research writing, where concise and clear statement is considered good than flowery phrase.

    Btw, thank you for this! 🙂

    • You’re welcome. I think there is a distinction between adding sensual information to your scene and adding “flowery phrases.” I can always tell when a writer is simply trying to pad their work with extraneous descriptions. The way you can tell is that the descriptions serve no other purpose than to add to the word count. Use your research background to add information that *adds* to the story. That might make it a little easier.

    • It takes practice but it also takes examples. It’s difficult for me to read a particularly well written book because so often I take myself out of the story to say “hmm, that was an interesting way to make that point.” read write, then repeat.

    • I have always learned and taught my kids by using examples. For me it’s easier if I see a bad example followed by a good example. Now your job is to go out and notice more examples of this in your reading.

  3. What interest me greatly is how different writers approach this subject matter. Each one has their own unique style that often if not always it all comes down to readers preference which is the best. For me, whatever works for the kind of story or scenario the book or article is about is the best. Few times I came across books which were written by the same person and the lack of similarity baffled and impressed me at the same time. I know I’m not making any sense but do forgive my lack of sleep. I will do better next time. Promise.

    • You raise a good point. We all write through our own filters (for example, I have a horrible sense of smell and so I tend to not include that sense thinking (erroneously) that if it’s not important to me, it’s not important to others. But everyone latches onto different senses which is why you have to make an effort to include as many as you can.

  4. Pingback: Reblogged :Use your senses in your writing | Stories of Sandeept

  5. Very true indeed. I have been writing creative stories for a couple of years now. What makes a great writer opposed to a good one? Connection with the reader, relatability, writing with truth, heart and soul, depth, light and shade, and risk. Writing with your senses? 100%- I may even go as far as to say perhaps it’s even less clinical. I’d suggest immersing yourself in your senses so that you’re literally drowning in them…be passionate about the story, the message…and then add the words! Thanks for sharing.

  6. This is so super helpful and freeing. It’s always such a struggle to veer away from the discipline of Tech writing. Writing Psychology papers in school caged me from creative writing. I find myself thinking, “Just the facts, Karyn”. Yet, the writing that puts a smile on my face most often is the observation, internal dialogue, and detail of creative writing – In turn, in the advent of social media and texting, we are losing the art and the romance of language and words.

    Thank you for giving voice to this!

  7. Pingback: Use your senses in your writing | Declarable &Serene

  8. Pingback: Use your senses in your writing | booksaregifts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s