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Exercise: Involving the Senses

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 7 Jan 2001
Reposted on: Mon, 2 Jan 2006

One of the principles of good writing is "involve the senses". Most of us find it easy enough to describe sights and sounds (though often with too little detail), but the other senses are often neglected: smell, taste, touch. (One could add other senses: motion/balance, for example.)

In 500 words or less, using senses other than sight or hearing, describe a character coming into a familiar house, and sensing something is different.

As an extra-curricular activity: for a full day this week, pay attention to the smells around you. Do the rooms in your house have different smells? Does your home smell different from someone else's? What are the smells on the street, in the stores, at work or school?

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Sun, 14 Jan 2001

General reaction first: I'm amazed at the response and at the creativity of the authors, and at the high level of participation (by my count, 21 Subs and 63 Crits.) And on the whole, the subs followed the intent of the exercise.

I think anyone who has been reading the submissions will have a seen a lot of ways to evoke a setting or event or character (or all of those) through sensory details.

I will suggest, however, that this exercise only scratches the surface, and that mastering the use of the senses requires paying attention over a sustained period of times.

Some of the things I saw in the submissions that confirm this view, for me:

  • in many submissions, I saw mostly visual description with a few other sensory impressions thrown in
  • we often saw words like "feel" or "sense", which are telling words. The purpose of the exercise was to go a step beyond - what does it feel like, exactly? What exactly did the character sense? (To use one of the more pungent examples: what exactly does skunk stink smell like?)
  • an interesting problem that appeared a few times was repetitive use of one word ("house" or "shit".) I think those represent a chance for the author to find richer, more diverse, language

(As a follow-up activity, the authors of those submissions could take a fresh look at their texts, and see if and how the scene could have been made richer, more alive.)

I am left wondering why we so easily use visual descriptions, and find it so hard to include the other senses (even though, for example, smell is the most evocative of senses.) Part of it is that we do live in a visual and spoken world, part that colours and shapes are more concrete, more easily described. My claim, however, is that using only sight and sound is like looking at a photo on the wall; adding smell and taste and touch is what puts us *in* the scene.

Finally, a couple of idle comments on how people approached the exercises. It was, first of all, interesting to me how many people tried to write a complete story. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe that in some cases it detracted from the exercise, since the writing focus shifted from the senses to the story being told. (The point of such exercises, or one of the points anyway, is to focus on one specific aspect of writing, as opposed to our standard writing where we're focused on the final goal.)

As well, I was interested in seeing how some writers obviously put a lot of work into their submissions, whereas others wrote theirs more quickly, with little revision (and some of the more spontaneous texts were among my personal favourites - perhaps those specific submissions were the ones that started with a strong image in the writer's mind?)

To conclude, my congratulations to everyone who participated, and good luck on the upcoming exercises. It's been fun seeing so many people take on my exercise and run with it! And I recommend that we all continue to pay more attention to what our senses are telling us, and think of how those sensations affect us, and how we could describe both the stimulus and our response as effectively as possible.

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.