Write Better, Right Now #2

Replacing Sense Words

Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post all about getting writers to understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level. For writers looking for open pitch calls, writing jobs, and challenges to grow their career and craft, check out last week’s 1-2-3 Publish post!

Write Better, Right Now’s topics for January:


As writers, we have a tendency to just let it rip on the page. It’s what readers love, crave, and come to our writing for. But a lot of the time, letting it just rip without a bit of editing and trimming leaves cluttered and distanced writing. Instead of choosing strong sensory details and vivid images, we settle for easy sense words like ‘see’, ‘heard’, ‘looked’, etc.

In a way, those words put roadblocks in the way of the information, emotion, and action of your story.

“Anne stepped outside to get her keys. It felt cold on her skin.”

Does nothing but tell the reader a basic temperature.

“Anne shuffled into the blistering wind sure to cause frostbite within minutes all for some keys.”

While both sample sentences say the same thing, delivering forward motion for the story, the first one simply tells the reader what is happening. The second one elaborates on the sense words in order to create a stronger image, immediacy, and voice.


Example

Something killed our rooster and three of our brown hens during the night. Thin ice crusts the ground, and it breaks in delicate patterns as I step toward the scattering of feathers and bones. Blood lies dark against the earth. It rarely snows here in the winter like at home. Only ice and gray rain that settles on the trees and pulls their limbs toward the ground like they’ve lost the will to fight for their own lives. These are gnarled, fearful trees, nothing like the commanding black forest of my youth, but their shadows still grow long enough to hide monsters.

Josh Rountree ‘February Moon’

Let’s get into it more below!


Techniques

Before we get into how to trim sense words and punch up your prose with sensory details and descriptors, I want to make a distinction.

Sense Words:

  • See
  • Taste
  • Hear
  • Look
  • Saw
  • Felt
  • Heard
  • Smelled

Sensory Words:

  • Glimpse
  • Glare
  • Icy
  • Ripe
  • Roar
  • Musty
  • Glance
  • Spicy

While sense words are directly attached to our senses, sensory words help describe those senses to paint a clearer image in the reader’s mind. Writing—good writing has a level of specificity above simple sense words. And that is the type of writing that stands out on the page.

Trimming sense words from our writing is as simple as using the search or find function on your word processor. I personally use this list as a combing jumping-off point to find filter and sense words using my search and find feature. It helps me find sense words and other phrases sapping energy from my writing.

But you don’t have to use that list, you can create your own list of troublesome sense words or use the basic senses as a starter guide. Search through your doc for these words and brainstorm ways to create specific and detailed substitutions that create the exact moment you’re describing. Sometimes the fix will be as simple as taking away the sense word framing the information, but other times you’ll want to get creative.

And that is okay!

Not every sense word needs to be replaced, however. This is where your intention and focus as a writer come in. What aspects of your story do you want to give the special glare of specificity? Where do you want your reader to be focused on the world and surroundings of the story?


Exercise

Take a current work-in-progress (WIP) and use the search and find feature on whatever word processor it is saved in (Word, Google Docs, etc.) to find all the sense words or do it yourself if you only have a hard copy. In places where simply trimming the sense word flattens the line, brainstorm five new ways of describing what you are simply stating with your sense words.

‘It looks sunny out.’

becomes

‘It is sunny out.’ or ‘The sun pierces my eyes.’


Resources

  1. 583 Sensory Words to Use Instead of Sense Words
  2. Sensory Details and Sensory Language
  3. Brandon Sanderson Descriptive Writing Part One and Part Two
  4. Arousing the Magic of Sensory Words
  5. Use All Five Senses to Unlock Your Fictional World
  6. How to Avoid Omiting Sensory Details

If you were able to learn something new today, consider subscribing below to At Home Pro Writers to continue getting writing advice, links to open pitch calls, ultimate writing guides, and more. Or check out the writing and editing masterclasses I offer! And if you’re in need of a stellar creative writer or editor, let me know while my calendar is still open.

Catch you, next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on describing body language. Feel free to drop your thoughts and experiences with the exercise into the comments!

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