Thursday, 9 April 2009

How to Sharpen your Literary Senses

The expression, ‘show, don’t tell’ is missing four things. Your readers are not content merely to see your story; they want to hear, smell, touch and taste it as well. Here are some simple ways to make your stories tantalise the senses of your readers, and make the writing process even more enjoyable for you.

Sense Perception

Set a time limit – maybe an hour or a day – where you notice everything. Carry a notebook with you and whenever you have the chance, note down your experiences. For instance:

‘When I press my fingers down slowly on the keys, it feels like pushing into the foil top on an old milk bottle’ or

‘the heating has just switched on and it sounds like a distant steam train’ or

‘the table shines like a freshly opened conker.’

You’ll put down a few clichés and a few bizarre descriptions that you may never use but you’ll start off your literary senses collection and your brain will begin to think about the use of senses in a creative way. After you’ve done this a few times, it will look out for things for you and throw them at you while you write, or in your dreams.


Colour is a marvellous place to start. Your heroine has brown hair and it is summertime. You could say that she has brown hair with highlights from the sun and that would work fine but a more interesting way to put it would be that it is ‘mocha with buttermilk streaks.’ Think about the exact colour. Maybe the streaks are buttermilk but the main colour is actually ‘latte’ or even ‘espresso.’ Be specific. A good tip to help you become more creative with colour is to keep some paint colour charts on your writing desk. Make sure you don’t use trade marked colours directly but you can take your inspiration from the names of the paints and play around with variations on their ideas.

Go free range and use your notepad to make sensory observations. Leave your desk, go to a coffee shop and observe people in their natural habitat. Watch people who pass in the street. Try to describe them fast in your notebook. Be specific. Do they have a thin and tired face or is it ‘drawn,’ ‘haggard,’ or ‘pinched?’ Their walk may be fast or it may be ‘hurried,’ ‘panicked,’ ‘desperate.’ You may even use this five second portrait to develop a character. Give your character a name, a reason for the tiredness and the speed of their walk. By the time they’ve gone out of view, I’ve usually worked out a whole back story. I pick people in the street and imagine they know each other and are just ignoring each other. Why are they doing that? What happened that their friends don’t know about? You may have a short story, poem or novel right there. If not, it is a handy character sketch for a secondary character or simply a bit more practice at using your literary senses. Just don’t let anyone see you or they’ll ask to see your notes and that could get embarrassing!


Think yourself into a sound. The clock might tick like a mother’s heart, for example. What is the sound really like? Feeling your way inside a sound, or any other sense, is not only a descriptive exercise, it can also help you with the tone of your piece. If the clock doesn’t sound like a mother’s heart to you but the rapid second-hand sounds like the tiny feet of a child running from their mother then you have a different story entirely.

The other tip with sound is to make use of it while you write. I put lots of different types of music on my MP3 player and play sets of tunes depending on the mood of the scene I am writing. I also give my characters ‘theme tunes’ – like in the movies! When a romantic scene is about to go right for a particular character, or they are feeling nostalgic, or they are feeling super confident, there is a specific tune I play. This really works for me and helps me ensure consistent development of the characters as I feel a set of emotions specific to the character when I play those tunes, so even if I haven’t written that particular character for a while, I snap right back into their head. When I am editing, I switch it off to make sure I am not relying on the music to create the mood and that helps me to know that it has worked.


This is so important to me. I measure out my novels in Yankee Candles. I use their jar candles because you can reuse the jars and they are safer than normal candles. I use them in the same way as the music. I have different smells for different moods and I have general fall-back candles which immediately get me into the mood for novel-writing – anything with coffee in it. If I drink coffee, I’m too jittery to write well but the smell of it really does the trick.

The same rules apply when describing smells. Be specific. Do research. Does a rose really smell sweet? Find one and work out the smell for yourself. Maybe it did to Shakespeare but your nose might pick out words like ‘dense,’ or ‘heady,’ ‘musky’ or ‘cloying’ or even something totally unexpected. I mixed a very expensive oil blend once, with rose oil in it, and when I let my brother smell it he said:

‘Yum, hot cross buns.’ When I sniffed it again, that was all I could smell.


This is where your notebook comes in most useful because we don’t spend an awful lot of time thinking about touch. For instance, you might look for the blue pen but when you pick it up, you won’t spare a thought for the way it feels in your hand. It is easier for you to call to mind ‘the blue pen’ than it is to locate ‘the pen that feels medium weight in comparison to the heavy pen.’ Sight is a short cut. You don’t go around the room feeling things to identify them if you are able to see them, so drawing your attention towards the sense of touch deliberately is a good exercise. It seemed improbable to me just now that my keys felt like pressing on a milk bottle top but, if I do it slowly enough, that is exactly what it feels like.

Another ‘touch’ exercise is to remember an experience you have had in the past – pick something nice like a first kiss or the first time you went from polycotton mix sheets to Egyptian cotton and talk yourself through every part of it, making notes on all the feelings you had at the time and the memories sparked off by those feelings.

Another fun exercise, is to put your Egyptian/polycotton sheets to good use; spend some ‘research’ time with your partner and make notes – but make sure they’re nice comments or you could end up with a very stroppy other half!


Buy some chocolate. (Any tip that starts ‘buy some chocolate’ has to be good, doesn’t it?) Eat the chocolate really consciously, focusing on everything about it. You can actually use this to help you with the other senses too. Write in your notebook: what it looks like; the sound of the chocolate snapping as you break it; the smell as you bring it closer to your lips; the feel of biting into it for the first time; the way it melts in your mouth, and every little nuance of the taste. Repeat until full.

Use these tips and, not only will your readers experience your books more fully but you will too. Have fun!

©Rebecca Woodhead

First published in 'Today's Woman'


  1. All good elements for making writing come alive and sing.

  2. Thank you Angie, I appreciate that. I'm really pleased with the response there has been on Today's Woman. Over 770 reads so far! If even 20 of the writers who read the article feel inspired enough to put the ideas into practice and benefit from them, it'll be great.


  3. Great information. Thanks alot for writing all this, Rebecca. Oh, and I'm really loving the look of this site. Its beautiful.

  4. This is great information for anyone seeking the journey into writing. Thanks for stopping by my blog and giving me the link.

  5. Hi Rebecca,
    How've you been? I can see you're doing rather well, especially your fromthebookshelf blog, also seems pretty encouraging. The supports you get from fellow readers show great improvement and progress for your blog. I'm so happy for you. ^^

    Seeing you haven't been updating much, just wanna pop in and greet you 'hi', and wondering how've you been. Hopefully you're well, healthy and enjoying the most out of your life with family too. Take care always, and God bless.

    Social Media/Blogging

  6. Hi Ching Ya

    Lovely to hear from you. I'm busy writing my new novel and there are also a few things going on in the 'real world' that are keeping me away from the blogosphere for a while. Will be back and tapping out my news and views very soon. Will probably be a bit quiet on my blogs for another two or three weeks.

    Thanks for the comment.


  7. What great advice and information.
    The senses, when used wisely, can be a good place to start.

    Thank you, for posting this.
    You're a fine writer.

  8. Great post. I have bought a bigger handbag to accomodate my notepad. I was getting bogged down with pieces of napkin and till receipts in my smaller one. I love your tip about colour charts, thanks.
    I help a friend on her market stall just to people watch and eavesdrop ;)
    I enjoyed my visit. Glynis (aka Ghunibee on Twitter) @

  9. Thanks for all the comments.

    Glynis, I LOVE the market stall idea.


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