Sunday, January 2, 2011


by Mary Quattlebaum

I don’t know what to write!  Have you heard this wail from your students?  The five-senses exercise gives them a fun and focused way to start.  I’ve done this exercise with all ages, from third graders to college students to adults.  It helps hone descriptive and revising skills.

Exercise:  Use the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch (at least 3 of 5) to write a description of a place.

*  Before writing, have students first close their eyes and quietly picture this spot in their minds.  Go through each of the senses one by one, asking them “What do you see in this place … hear … smell … taste … touch?”  And finish by asking, “How does being in this place make you feel?”

*  Have them write, using at least 3 of their 5 senses in their description of this place. Descriptions should be relatively short (about 1 to 3 paragraphs long).

*  After writing a first draft, have students revise, encouraging them to use more descriptive words (“lush, green” grass rather than “pretty” grass, for example); more specific nouns and adjectives (what kind of bird or what color, for example), and stronger verbs (“run” or “skip” rather than “go,” for example).


For young people:  I often challenge them to describe a place outdoors that is special to them.  This helps them to focus on and perhaps better experience the natural world.  Otherwise you tend to get descriptions of bedrooms and malls.

For creative writers:  In addition to sharpening descriptive skills, the exercise can be a boon for creative writers trying to flesh out scenes and create a well-rounded world for their characters.  (I often do this exercise, trying to imagine the scene before writing/revising it.)  It’s endlessly interesting because you can apply it to places/scenes real and imagined, scary, tranquil, or chaotic.

For everyone:  Ours is a culture that gives and receives a lot of information through our sense of sight.  And our vocabularies tend to be sight-rich—with many fewer words dealing with taste and smell.  By being aware of and drawing upon all your five senses in your writing, you’ll often find yourself more alive to your senses in the real world.

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