Writing what you know
Writing what you know

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Writing what you know

3 The senses

3.1 Involving all of the senses

Becoming more aware of the everyday world around you involves more than just looking. If writing is a perceptual art then perception should involve all of the senses, not just the visual. You must also start to smell, feel, taste and hear the world you are trying to realise. So, in the made up scenario, when you see the man with the Scottie dog you might be too fearful to stroke his dog, but perhaps you could touch the cold metal bar where the dog was tied up – after he is gone, of course! You might feel the rough bark of the tree close at hand, smell the brash perfume of the washing detergent steaming out of the nearby launderette, taste the bitter dryness this causes in your mouth, and hear the wind whistle past the buildings. You might see the graffiti on the wall and appreciate that part of the street is always quiet, not even any traffic, and that there is a different smell: ammonia, it smells like fish.

By awakening your senses and becoming more conscious of the world around you, you will be enriching your grasp of that world. Once this heightened way of perceiving your environment has trickled down into your writing, your reader will benefit, getting a much fuller picture of the worlds you are creating.

Activity 4

In an indoor location write down three things for each of the following:

  • sounds that you can hear;

  • textures that you can feel;

  • odours that you can smell;

  • flavours that you can taste;

  • objects that you can see.


Having the sensory perception is one thing; writing about it is quite a different matter. We often need to use metaphor and simile to describe our perceptions. Even the most established writer struggles and strives to find phrases that can translate perception in an original and meaningful fashion. How do you write about feeling ‘soaked to the skin’ without using such a hackneyed phrase? How do you write about a rough surface or a bitter taste? The obvious solution is to find a comparison that fits the sensation. The rough surface becomes ‘like gravel’ or ‘like sandpaper’, the bitter taste becomes ‘like lemon’. Some similes might seem a little too easy or too familiar and it is important to search for the metaphor or simile that fits your particular context.

For instance, in a story called ‘The Barber's Victim’ (Neale, 1995, p.68), I described a young lad, drenched by the rain, entering a new, grown-up world – a barber's shop – for the first time. After deciding against ‘soaked to the skin’ and several similes that seemed to me either too familiar or too odd (‘drowned rat’, ‘dripping leaf’) I wrote that he ‘flapped through the red, white and blue fly strips like a grounded fish’. In this way the verb was working as hard as the simile. The use of ‘flapped’ revealed how awkward the character was in this setting, and the simile of the grounded fish reflected how he was being thrown into an unfamiliar and threatening world, and wasn't now in charge of his own actions.

Your writing will always benefit from exercising your sensory awareness. You can do more of these sorts of exercises, and in a variety of contexts. If you get time you might like to repeat this activity, finding three of each of the senses in an outdoor location.

Looking back over and revising your writing should become a habit. Look over your responses to Activity 3 and check for the sensory perceptions that you have used, add some relevant ones if you need to and redraft accordingly.


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