The title of this article might sound like an advertisement for a (para-)psychological experiment, but fear not. I don’t plan to demonstrate a way to summon the spirits of old authors to ask them for writing advice!
Instead, I’ll talk about six sensory exercises that can help you improve your writing in a simple, easy-to-follow way.
Humans depend mostly on their sight and hearing to experience the world around them. But we also have smell, taste, and touch, senses we might forget to include in a text. Writers can discover an entire world of experiences by paying attention to all their senses, and this is precisely what the six sensory exercises in this article will show you how to do.
Most authors do this, even subconsciously so. Every writer has a little set of routines or quirks that help them in their writing.
Some of us might like to have a cold shower before writing, others might prefer to write right after the gym. Virtually all writers, I expect, like to write with a cup of coffee or tea by their side. These and other routines essentially “tickle” a writer’s senses, thus providing a heightened sense of experiencing, which can greatly enhance writing ability.
It is known that Charles Dickens, at the peak of his writing career, always wrote for five hours, starting in the morning, from nine until two, after which he walked alone until five. There is no objective right or wrong, and what works for one writer might not work for another. That’s why, I believe, it’s more flexible to focus on the human senses rather than specific objectives.
Before an author writes about anything at all, they need to experience the world around them first. Fiction authors need to feel in order to express emotions, whereas nonfiction authors need to understand before they explain to others. Our five basic senses are the gateway to both feeling and understanding.
By exercising each of these senses, an author can improve on vocabulary, understanding cause-and-effect patterns, and experiencing the surrounding environment with heightened awareness. These elements are crucial to writing, as they allow us to communicate information more efficiently.
The human experience is so complex, so vastly diverse, that it’s a rare treat to be able to pinpoint five things most of us have in common. Writers should take advantage of this aspect, because doing so can greatly enhance the way their audiences can relate to the text.
As I mentioned earlier, sight accounts for the vast majority of our sensory input. With the exception of visually impaired people, humans live their lives mostly through sight. Inevitably, narratives are also built mostly from a visual perspective. This makes a good understanding of what it means to see all the more important for a writer.
Pick a simple, everyday object. It can be the rubber duck that helps you combat writer’s block, or it can be a fork, a glass, a hair ribbon, or a paper clip. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s simple, familiar, and something you can easily hold and move.
See the object from every side, notice the way it reflects the light. How would you describe its colors? What would it look like if it weren’t what it is? For example, a kitchen knife reflecting the bright, blinding sunlight might begin to look like a sword.
Dedicate a few moments to consciously think of your observations, coming up with various words. A flower doesn’t need to be just “red;” it can be “crimson” or “cerise.”
Change the setting—for example, go to a room with different lighting—and repeat the process. Afterward, write a paragraph with your observations, as if you were writing a short description for an alien visitor who had never seen that object before.
This exercise not only helps you expand your vocabulary, it also helps you pay attention to details you wouldn’t normally notice. In our everyday life, we focus on practicalities: An apple is “red,” and the knife we use to peel it is simply a tool serving a purpose.
This is normal; that’s how the human brain needs to operate for maximum concentration and efficiency. And so, in order to exercise our writing muscles, we need to give them such exercises that inspire us to see things a little bit differently.
After sight, hearing is probably the next most important sense. Not only does it allow us to communicate in a natural, fast, and efficient manner, but it’s also a fundamental aspect of our artistic appreciation. Who could imagine a world without music?
For this exercise, you need to find a source of sound. Again, it should be something familiar and everyday—the reason is precisely that we often become oblivious to repetitive, ordinary experiences.
For example, you could get a glass, fill it with water, then place it on the surface of a table. Consciously pay attention to the sound. Is it a short thud or a longer-lasting bang? Is it wet or dry? Does it have an echo?
Perhaps that particular sound, of that particular object, reminds you of the sound produced by something else. Better still, it might remind you of a feeling or thought. For instance, the sound of a bouncing ball might remind you of carefree childhood afternoons.
As before, write a short paragraph describing the experience. Imagine you’re writing it for someone who has no idea how that particular object sounds.
Compared to sight, human hearing is even more limited in our everyday life. We filter out a lot of sounds and noises in order to concentrate on speech or other crucial inputs.
But there is an entire world hidden beneath the surface, and consciously discovering it with exercises such as the one above can greatly improve the understanding of our environment and translate it into better writing.
These two senses are to some extent overlapping, so it’s productive to group them together for the purposes of a writing exercise, too.
Smell and taste are comparatively less used in writing than sight or hearing, at least in their literal function.
The best source of smells and flavors for this writing exercise can be found—where else—in the kitchen. Gather a set of herbs and spices, especially those you aren’t too familiar with, and place a small quantity of each into a small saucer. If you have someone who could assist you, have them do that part for you, so that you don’t know what they have picked.
The saucers should be arranged on a table. If you don’t have an assistant, close your eyes and randomly swap the places of the saucers so that you don’t know what is where. With eyes closed, begin to sample the spices and herbs.
Is the smell warm or fresh? Does flavor confirm what you smelled, or is it something different altogether? Perhaps a certain herb caused an odd sensation on your tongue, like a burning … (fill in the blank).
After spending some time with the scents and flavors, it’s time for—you guessed it!—writing another short paragraph. Try to recall the sensations, the feelings they created and, if possible, the memories they might have triggered. If tasting cardamom reminded you of Christmas, include it in your text.
The benefits of this exercise for improving your writing are a bit more abstract compared to the earlier ones. Though it still inspires you to expand your vocabulary—it’s incredible how quickly you run out of words to describe the taste of coffee—the main benefit of the exercise is in that it helps you form connections between these senses and memories.
Just as cardamom might remind you of Christmas, coconut oil might remind you of a lovely beach holiday. Exercising the full range of such sensations improves the vivid reminiscence of past experiences, which is a basic building block of good writing.
Touch is an incredibly useful sense for humans in general and writers in particular. It’s also the sense most directly associated with pleasure or pain.
Here’s another little detail: You can close your eyes and not see, you can press your palms over your ears and not hear. You can apply similar constraints to your smell and taste. But you are always touching something.
In a writing exercise related to touch, you should again focus on everyday objects, but unlike with seeing and hearing, you’ll need several of them. Touch them one after another, and compare.
A glass might be smooth, but its rim might have a ridge. What does it feel like for your finger to flow over it? Compared to a plastic cup, is the glass colder? Warmer? Perhaps it’s slippery as … (fill in the blank).
I find the sense of touch to be the most descriptively powerful from a writing perspective. In other words, I believe touch descriptions have the greatest effect on a reader.
The reason is probably the direct nature of the experience. We can see, hear, and even smell things from far away. But we need to be in direct contact in order to touch something. Just think of words like “slither” or “gelatinous”—to name two random examples—to understand how powerfully evocative descriptions of touch can be.
No, I haven’t reneged on my promise not to show you a way to summon the spirit of Ernest Hemingway and ask him for writing advice. Writers do have a sixth sense that needs training, and it does help them see the future, just not in the way you might think.
For a writer, to see the future means to understand connections and cause-and-effect patterns. In other words, writers need to understand how ideas, events, feelings, and thoughts are interconnected and cause one another.
In a way, we could say that writers can’t see the future, but they must be able to see a future; or rather, multiple ones. Whether you write a novel, a blog article on programming, or a personal essay, you need to have a sense of how one idea is connected with and causes another.
To do this sixth-sense exercise, all you have to do is again pick an everyday object and imagine doing something with it. For example, you might be holding a glass full of water. Imagine what would follow if you threw it against the computer screen (yikes!).
Combine all other senses, if possible, and “hear” the glass shattering, “see” the water splashing all around, and perhaps “feel” some of it on your hand. Maybe the poor computer screen has short-circuited and you can even “smell” it burning.
Write a short paragraph with this what-if scenario, at the same time trying to follow the narrative thread. Maybe after the glass was broken, someone entered the room to ask if everything is alright. Try to come up with a short dialogue or other happening for this possible future, all originating from a breaking glass.
Ultimately, writing is about sharing thoughts and experiences. But in their raw form, experiences are really about senses. It all begins with seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.
When we talk with a friend about a party we went to last Saturday, we simply discuss in a more complex, holistic way the sum of all the things we saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched there.
Writers need to process a sum of sensations and the thoughts and feelings associated with them for their audience. For a fiction writer the process revolves mostly around feelings and abstract thoughts, whereas for a nonfiction writer it is mostly knowledge that needs to be communicated.
But whichever the context, it all becomes available through one’s senses. Therefore, the way to better understand our senses and what it truly feels like to … feel, is to become a better writer.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops Android apps focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general.