UncategorisedHow to write sensory details | The Editing Lounge

When we include sensory details in our writing, we can evoke our readers’ senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This is because painting a strong scene in your reader’s imagination helps them pull similar scenes from their own memories. 

Here, we’ll explore the science behind why evoking the senses can be so compelling and look at how to write effective sensory details.

What are sensory details ?

Sensory details are descriptive phrases that appeal to our senses by describing how we see, feel, hear, taste, and smell the world around us.

What are sensory details? | The Editing Lounge

The science behind sensory details

The science behind sensory details | The Editing Lounge

Our brains handle sensory words differently than ordinary words. 

A 2011 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology found that our brains process sensory (‘tangible’) words faster than other words

And another study, this time published in Brain and Language in 2012 found that a certain part of our brains ‘activates’ when we read sensory words.

Types of sensory imagery

There are five types of sensory details, some of which have sub-senses.

Visual imagery is all about what the character can see. Explore physical attributes like colour, size, shape, shadows, shade, lightness, and darkness.

You can heighten your sensory details by integrating more than one of these aspects in your description. So, don’t just tell us that the dress was lemon yellow. Show us the shadow falling across the dress, the shape of the fit, and the way that it hangs on the back of your character’s bedroom door.

Taste imagery is all about flavour. Explore texture, sensation, and the five main tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, spicy and umami.

Tactile imagery is all about touch. Explore textures, moisture, smoothness, softness, and sharpness.

Tactile imagery extends to kinaesthetic imagery, which is all about the feeling of movement. Although this is similar to tactile imagery, kinaesthetic imagery is more about full-body sensations, often internal. Think about pressure, weight, itches, and temperature.

Auditory imagery is all about what the character can hear. Pair dialogue with interruptions from other noises, e.g. a plane flying overhead, loud music, or machinery.

And you can go further than just telling readers what the noise is. Think about volume, pitch, and timbre (the tone of the sound, ideal when describing character voices).

Scent imagery is all about what the character can smell.

Scent is one of our most direct triggers of emotion and memory, but it can be difficult to describe.

Sometimes, using simile can help you describe a smell more effectively than trying to describe a smell in concrete terms.

Some of the most common smells include fruity, fragrant, sweet, minty, nutty, woody, pungent, burning, decaying, and chemical.

Types of sensory imagery | The Editing Lounge

When to use sensory details

Writing sensory details is about much more than noting colours and basic smells, sounds, and tastes. The trick is to integrate the tips above at strategic moments when you want to immerse your reader in an important moment and/or build tension.

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About Charlotte

Charlotte McCormac | Line Editor | Copyeditor | Content Writer | Shrewsbury | Oswestry

Charlotte is an award-winning writer and line/copyeditor who writes and edits for clients all over the world. She also works on the fiction team for Ambit, a UK literary and arts magazine. 

She holds an international literary prize from Hammond House Publishing Group, two writing-related degrees, various marketing certifications, and training certificates from the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, of which she is a Professional Member.

Charlotte’s work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines, and literary journals, including IndigomaniaDream Catcher, and The Curlew

She has also created a series of free self-editing cheat sheets to help new writers hone their fiction before sending their work off to a professional editor.

CIEP | Professional Member | The Editing Lounge