You know your writing should evoke all five senses, but here’s a handy tip for not only making sure you’ve included sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell in a scene, but also that you’ve balanced your use of the senses:
Color Coding for the Senses:
- Pick a passage from your writing.
- Pull out your highlighters or colored pens and assign one color to each of the five senses.
- Now, read the passage and use the appropriate color to highlight or underline each word or phrase that evokes a sense. If certain words or phrases evoke multiple senses, use both colors.
- Hold the paper at arm’s length for a quick and easy-to-read snapshot of how much sensory writing you have included and which senses you’re evoking.
- Based on what you see, go back to your piece and edit.
I most recently heard this piece of advice on an episode of the excellent Writing Excuses podcast, but I had come across it before in a Grub Street class I took with the lovely and slightly wicked K.L. Pereira. For class, Ms. Pereira had us read a piece by Angela Carter called “The Kiss.” Here’s a brief excerpt with color coding:
The market has a sharp, green smell. A girl with black-barred brows sprinkles water from a glass over radishes. In this early part of the year, you can buy only last summer’s dried fruit—apricots, peaches, raisins—except for a few, precious, wrinkled pomegranates, stored in sawdust through the winter and now split open on the stall to show how a wet nest of garnets remains within. A local speciality of Samarkand is salted apricot kernels, more delicious, even, then pistachios.
In this example, orange is sight, sky blue is taste, lime green is touch, and teal blue is a mixture of two senses (“sharp, green smell” evokes smell and touch, “sprinkles” evokes sight and hearing). Using this technique, you can immediately see that Carter has not only used a wide variety of the senses, she has also balanced her use of them well. (Side note: Carter is particularly well known for her expert handling of the senses in her writing, so don’t be intimidated by this example.) 😉
Try this exercise with a piece of your own writing or with an excerpt from someone else’s work to gain some valuable insight into different ways to use of the senses in a scene. Even if you use someone else’s work, go ahead and see if you can improve upon it based on what you learn from the color coding.
You can also practice by writing descriptions of simple settings and actions, but doing so in a way that uses all five senses. For instance, you could write about riding on a train, folding laundry, filling a bird feeder, or making a sandwich. Keep the subject matter simple, but see how many sensory details you can work into the telling. Think of all the ways you could use the senses to describe making (and eating!) that sandwich pictured above: the crunch of the bread, the vibrant crimson of the cranberries, the fresh coolness of the lettuce, the rich scent of roasted turkey … Mmmmm … I’m getting hungry!
Have fun with it. Explore your senses and how you can use them in your writing. With a little practice you’ll add a whole new dimension to your scenes.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.