Writing with All the Senses

The rising temperatures and long, sunny days can make it hard to buckle down at the computer and get all my writing done. On days like these, who wouldn’t rather be running a trail, hiking a mountain, tucking toes into a lake, or lazing by a waterfall? Springtime temptations pull me from the keyboard. My compulsion for writing pulls me back. And on days like these – especially like these – I make the work more interesting by writing with all my senses.

You may have heard about writing with all your senses, but this is different. I’m not talking about closing my eyes and imagining what a place looks and smells like, and then incorporating all those details into my work. Though that is good practice, I’m talking about using my senses in a different way.

Let’s start with the eyes. What do you see when you look at a newspaper article, an online blog, or the pages of a book? Long, unbroken blocks of text? That’s hard on your eyes. Too much reading with no breaks isn’t inviting and doesn’t hold your attention. You need a moment now and then to rest and think. So when I write, I break it up – even more than I learned to do in grammar school, with a single paragraph for each new idea. Instead of semicolons (which I love by the way, but save for journaling rather than torturing readers with them), I employ em dashes (those long, double dashes so named because they are the width of a letter “M” in typography) to give my readers a little more air between all the letters. Readers seem to like more breaks these days, or maybe they need more time to ponder what they’ve read. Of course, the copyeditors and proofreaders often switch things up on me to save space and that’s alright too. If they do, know that I ended this paragraph here.

The ears are next. After writing a piece, I read it aloud. How do my words sound? Are they clunky and hard to listen to, with an uneven pattern and abrupt stops? Did I repeat a word over and over again, and if I did, is there a good substitute? I listen for alliteration, which I may use to purposely portray the personality of the piece – more often, it’s an accident and I have to ax it. If I employ onomatopoeia, I listen to hear if my choices sizzle and pop or fall flat. I also read aloud to see if I ended each sentence – especially those sentences that open a piece or a paragraph – with the right word so the reader knows what comes next. Sometimes I mess up and bury that important word in the middle, like in the first sentence of this paragraph where I ended the sentence with “next” instead of “ears.” I’ll leave it there for you to see with your eyes, then come back here so we can talk about the mouth.

While I’m listening with my ears, I’m also sensing the words coming out of my mouth. How do they feel in there when I say them aloud? Are they knocking against my teeth, rolling along my tongue, or sloshing around from cheek to cheek? Are they sharp like tiny knives nipping my gums, or smooth and soothing like lilac petals against my soft palate? Whatever they’re doing and how they make my mouth feel have to match their meaning. Lollipop loops feel relaxing and fun. So do mud puddles, blubber, and bumblebees, while cracks, crags, and crevasses make me catch my breath. Angst and agony feel bad in my mouth and I typically would not use these words in a blog or newspaper column except here, to make a point about tasting my words before I type them.

Next is my nose. “Does this pass the smell test?” I ask. When the writing is insincere, uninformed, or mean-spirited, it stinks. When there’s an ulterior motive I can smell it a mile away, and the foul odor wrinkles my nose. Even the most well-intentioned writers sometimes allow stink bombs to seep into their work. I sniff them out in my own writing and dutifully flush them out.

Finally, there’s the sense of touch. No, I don’t stroke the words with my fingertips. I read the piece and think about how it makes me feel inside. Do the words make me smile, or cringe? Am I happy, sad, intrigued, or confused? Do I feel enlightened, amused, or betrayed? Did the writer waste my time? Do I even like this person who wrote these words, transferred their thoughts to my head, and affected how I view the world? Or have they irritated me and ruined my day? That sense – the touch, the feeling – is the most important of all, because it’s what sticks. When a writer makes me feel a certain way, I remember it forever.

I guard my own feelings because they affect my life in so many ways: how I behave, communicate with others, and respond to the world. How a writer makes me feel affects who and how I am in the world, and so I want them to respect that – the influence they have on me and on everything and everyone with whom I interact. This is what I think about most when I write. Not in a narcissistic way, because I know my readers are smart and discerning, and if I’m making them feel a way they don’t enjoy, they will stop reading. But in a hopeful, loving way that sees them as a person, just like me, enjoying those moments when we feel better about ourselves and the people with whom we share this planet. Because although we may not see, hear, taste, smell, or feel the same way about everything we read, deep down, we are so much the same.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 19, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

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