Sensory Language IS The Detail In Your Writing

sensory language

When you add detail to your writing, you are painting with words, and you can use all the colors! Sensory language is the key.

I live in Missouri, known as the “Show-Me State.” When I first heard that slogan, I didn’t understand it. Show me what? After doing a bit of research, I discovered the slogan was derived from a speech made by Willard Duncan Vandiver, a Missouri Congressman, in 1899. Vandiver said, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

In other words, the people of Missouri are not gullible. If you want us to believe, don’t just tell us – you need to show us the truth through facts and evidence.

It’s funny, my adopted state’s slogan reminds me of one of the most basic directives in creative writing: “Show, don’t tell!” You’ve heard that phrase before, but today I want to dive in and explore how to achieve it using descriptive details in your writing.

Here’s a quote from blogger Rhys Alexander that sums up the difference between mediocre writing and exceptional writing quite nicely:
“Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors.”

Back in April, I wrote the post “Use Sensory Language To Make Your Writing Come Alive,” which focused on the importance of using “the language of the five senses.” When you use sensory language, you describe what you see, feel, hear, taste, and smell. You don’t write, “I was sad when my girlfriend left me.” You write, “I saw a smile flicker on Sarah’s lip when she whispered the words, ‘I’m finally leaving you.’ My throat clamped tight. I blinked hard so I wouldn’t cry, but one hot tear fell and salted my upper lip.”

This short passage incorporates four of the five senses: Hearing (“she told me”), touch/feeling (“one hot tear”), sight (“I saw a smile”), hearing (“she whispered”), taste (“salted my upper lip”). You can see how sensory language livens up your writing, engages the reader, and helps your reader visualize the scene so they can better experience it.

Sensory language IS the detail in your writing

When you add detail to your writing, you are painting with words, and you can use all the colors!

Writing in detail takes time to develop, but not as much as you might think. Seek out resources to help – my favorite is the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. This is a regarded as a classic among writers and is well worth having on your bookshelf. I want to share a couple of snippets from the book that have helped me in my own writing.

Lamott encourages writers to view their world in small sections, as small as a one-inch picture frame. “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame,” she says. That limited focus can help you really home in on the detail. When you’re frenzied about how much you need to write, step back and look through that one-inch picture frame. “All we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry.”

That’s it. Construct the details of your book scene by scene, moment by moment, by looking through these small windows. When you look through small windows, you see a lot more minutiae – the curved crack etched in the sidewalk, the one green pea that rolled under the table, the rim of grease under the fingernail of the doctor…

Details make the difference, so show them to your readers!


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  1. Good sensible advice. I’m often telling authors I edit to concentrate on the particular not the general, which is a variant of show, don’t tell. Yes, tell has its place, but as you and Anne Lamott advocate, use your director’s eye to show the details – in the emotions, the setting, the conflict. Sometimes, I think the writer has written the scene, but it’s merely the screenplay outline, an early draft; it still needs breath infused by the characters, and colours, and textures, and of course single POV emotional content.

  2. I take a Creative Writing group for the U3A (University of the Third Age) in Torrevieja, Spain, and we have discussed the importance of using our five senses. Not all at once, of course, but subtly. It makes the writing come alive and appear more natural and personal.It can create magic and atmosphere. My first, dear, writing teacher said “Don’t mention the moon directly but its reflections on a surface.

  3. This is spot on. Writing in five senses (the sensory details) engages the readers. It’s the same with film writing or movie making. You need to create a great scene with the senses. In writing though, how we phrase our descriptions, choose the words, and how we construct our paragraphs are yet another hurdle.Thank you for your post.

  4. “Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors.” Excellent!

    As a writer and illustrator, I walk through life visualizing it “through small windows”. Every little thing catches my senses. It can be very distracting at times but that’s when I find so many hidden wonders of our world. I am captivated by the golden flecks in the iris of an eye, the crisp tingle of a fall breeze, even the morning splendor broken by a rattling lawnmower engine coming to life.

    The hard part for me is tempering it in fast-paced scenes.


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