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How to using the senses will make your writing more powerful

Writing through the senses

This week I’ve been thinking about using the senses when we write and what it actually means, and how to go about teaching someone else to do it. This has come up for me because a couple of people asked me about teaching Creative Writing workshops to beginners and what they could include, and because I was proof-reading my book for Creative Writing tutors and students called How to Think Like a Writer. This also came up when I created a course on Writing and Mindfulness for New Writing South recently, so I’ve been pondering it a lot.

Description is only part of the job

When we use the senses in writing, we’re not simply describing something: a colour, for instance, or smell, taste, sound or texture. (I usually add a sixth sense in workshops, and that’s ‘sensing an atmosphere’, which is a combination of instinct and all of the other senses.) Description is only part of the job. In fact, if you’re writing and you use the senses only in a descriptive way, you and your readers will feel that there’s something missing but possibly not know what it is!


Use of the senses, when it comes to a finished piece of writing, is better if it’s an immersive experience. In other words, the story or poem or whatever it is acts like a portal and transports the reader to the scene, where they feel as if they can look around. They’re experiencing the scene as if they were there. Most of us have had the experience of getting so lost in a story that we forget about the time, because we’re so totally involved in the world of our characters.

How do you achieve that sense of transportation when you’re writing and redrafting? What does a writer have to do on the page to have this effect on the reader? Here’s what I think works. Let me know in the comments if you agree:

  • Be specific. The more specific you get, the easier it is for the reader to get transported into the scene.
  • Let the action unfold in front of us step-by-step, so we get a chance to ‘look around’.
  • Use the objective correlative.

The objective correlative

The objective correlative means using an object or place (or thing) to convey an emotion. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the objective correlative can truly be the difference between boring, lifeless writing and effective, vibrant (and sellable) work. In fact, one reason advice to ‘be specific’ and to ‘let the action unfold in front of us’ helps, is because there’s more chance that the objective correlative will kick in and start working! Try it out now. Think of a place, thing or action that could replace these sentences:

  • She felt angry.
  • He was hopeful.
  • He felt upset.
  • She felt happy.

By the way, it helps if you visualise a character in a specific place when you do this and fill in as many details as possible. Here are some examples, but there’s no ‘right answer’:

  • She beat her fists against the wall.
  • He stood at the top of the hill and looked out to sea, where the sun was kissing the horizon.
  • Even the hamburger didn’t look appetising any more, as he…
  • She felt the warm sand beneath her toes and the sea breeze on her face as…

Even though these are off the top of my head examples and could do with some work, when you compare the first list to the second, you’ll probably agree that the second list has the potential to transport you much much more than the first one does. And they all use the senses somehow.

Noticing things

There’s another level to using the senses. It involves mindfulness, although not for the sake of it. That’s good too, but this is a specific kind of mindfulness that helps us to write. In its simplest form, this means noticing things with all of your senses, and deliberatly taking time out to pause and experience your environment. You can then recall these moments of pause and use them to add detail to your writing. You can also go out of your way to have sensory experiences – for instance, listening to a brass band, going on a walk in a graveyard, meditating on a beach, sitting in an interesting place and writing about it – a ‘next level’ sort of writing and mindfuless that will allow you to include a wide variety of sensory detail in your writing.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,


P.S. Want some writing exercises to help you develop your use of sensory detail? I have just the thing! Go here.

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