Using Sensory Perception in Your Writing

By Andrea Merrell

For the writer, inspiration is everywhere. All we have to do is be alert and ready, tuning-in to the world around us. This is where sensory perception is invaluable. Sounds complicated, but it’s simply a matter of being aware, perceiving things with our senses.

As an example, a couple of years ago I was on the faculty at a writers’ conference at a local university. After the lunch break, I was sitting in the area where books and other materials were being sold when a fascinating thing happened. 

I watched with keen interest as a group of students came through the door. Half of the students were blindfolded and being led by the teacher. As they entered the building, the teacher instructed those who were blindfolded to let their senses kick in. Their task was to absorb everything they could from their surroundings—things they could hear, feel, or smell. The rest of the students—the ones not encumbered by a scarf over their eyes—were to take note of what they could see. The exercise only lasted for a few moments, then the blindfolds were removed. All at once, the young men and women started talking over one another, excited and eager to share what they had noticed. It was amazing how much they gleaned from this exercise.

This reminded me of a ladies’ retreat many years ago at a local state park when our leader took us on a hike. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we were headed toward the lake. As we neared our destination, she stopped and gave us instructions. “When you reach that tree,” she said, pointing toward a massive pine, “stop talking and listen. You can sit or walk around, but don’t make a sound until I give the signal.”

As soon as we knew what was coming, we chattered like magpies until we reached the tree. It still amazes me to think how fast twenty women stopped talking. There was complete silence within our group for about ten minutes. Then our leader asked us what we had perceived during our time of reflection. As each lady shared, many of the things were similar: airplanes overhead, a crow, ducks quacking on the lake, and the wind whispering through the trees. One person thought she heard the sound of a gunshot while another overheard an argument between a young couple and smelled the rancid smell of someone’s charred burgers.

Putting the Senses to Work
Allowing our characters to use their senses will take our writing to the next level. We hear it all the time: show—don’t tell. This is when we make our words come alive as we invite our readers to experience our story—not just read about it. Can they see the scene unfolding before them as it plays out in their mind? Are there any sounds which might cause anxiety or fear? What can they smell? Maybe it’s a burned burger or the delightful aroma of fresh baked muffins coming from the local bakery. Can you describe the food in such a way that your reader can almost taste it? Do the objects in the room seem so real they can almost touch them?

This is more than a matter of just relating the facts. You can actually help your reader connect with your characters and get lost in your plot. Reading a good book should be like watching a good movie. When you learn to show and not tell, you can better tug on your reader’s emotions. This can be done no matter what you’re writing, even an article or simple devotion. You can paint a beautiful picture with your writing and make your words sing. Your reader may not remember every word you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.

(Photos courtesy of Miles/artur84/marin.)



  1. Thank you Andrea. I have started using my senses more when I write. I find that it livens up the scene or devotion. Something that I want to become better at. :-)

    1. I've read your work, Sheryl, and you're doing a great job. Thanks so much for stopping by. :)


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