Writing With All Your Senses — A Learnable Skill

Sunday MorningWhen beginning writers read flowing prose full of dazzling descriptions, they may think, “I’ll never in a thousand years be able to write like that!” They may grow depressed and consider throwing their computer off a bridge. None of us are immune, as I pointed out in a past post, Inner Critic — Guide, Guard, or Enabler

When you hear that voice, rest assured that your Inner Critic is the source, and those words are both true and false. They are true because our writing voices are as personal and unique as our speaking voices. You could study and practice for fifty years and be equal in skill and reader impact, but you’ll never write exactly “like that.”

They are false because writing dazzling descriptions is a learnable skill. It takes practice and dedication and seeps into remote corners of life, but the results are worth the effort. In my experience, a three-pronged approach has worked well to hone description skills to a keen edge. One prong involves reading, another involves awareness of surroundings, and the third is deliberation.

I’m a deliberately slow reader. I savor words as a gourmet savors flavors. I always have a pad of sticky flags at hand when I’m reading a novel or memoir so I can flag words and phrases I admire. Some books may have only a couple; others bristle with them. When I read an innovative description, I roll it around, saying it out loud to practice the sound and feel of it, letting it sink deeply into my mind. I imagine how that author may have come up with it.

After I finish the book, I head for my computer and type the flagged passages into a Word document I’ve set up like a primitive database. I have over three dozen books logged there, perhaps half the number I’ve read since beginning the log. I review the file now and then when I need inspiration.

Turning to awareness of environment, when I see something unusual in my surroundings, I ponder ways to describe it. I consider its color, texture, shape -- anything unusual about it. I think about things it may remind me of as I search for metaphors and similes. I try to think out of the box and stretch to find new ideas, relying on the exercise I just mentioned — thinking about how other authors come up with the phrases I admire.

Finally, as I edit, I deliberate and seek fresh ways of stating things and artful ways of arranging the words I use. Free association and visualization are helpful.

This is art, and it has a musical component. You hear a lot about a writer’s voice. This is something we each develop. I may admire Rosamund Pilcher from daybreak to dusk, but my writing will never sound like hers. It won’t sound like Sue Grafton’s either, and certainly not like Steven King’s, or William Zinsser’s. My writing will sound like Sharon Lippincott’s, as it should. My challenge is to continually strive to stay on pitch and in rhythm to keep my voice as crisp and clear as it can be.

I will be sharing description writing secrets and strategies in an online class, Writing With All Your Senses, offered by Story Circle Network in January and February. Click for class and registration details.

Write now: scan the room around you and find one specific item that catches your eye, then write about it. Describe it in an unusual way, and strive to involve all your senses.

Photo credit: Rochelle


SuziCate said...

Being aware and writing with your senses has a cathartic effect I never experienced in writing until I started writing this way.

Sharon Lippincott said...

SuziCate, your descriptions are so delightful. I'm glad to hear you also find this cathartic.

Herm said...

I too have a folder I call "Ways to Say". I remember the great clown, Red Skelton. About stories he said, "You don't have to have a funny story to tell. You have to find a way to tell your story funny". It was a way to say.

kathleen said...

So many pearls here,Sharon:"Staying on pitch and in rhythm with your own voice" so your writing is "crisp and clear." I think that takes time, practice and patience and usually starts when I sit still long enough to embrace what's surrounding me in the moment. I also have learned the importance of making every word count. Thanks again for another thought-provoking post.

Linda said...

I chuckled when I read this post. I, too, savor words and keep sticky notes beside me at all times. I record words in various lists and folders on my computer. (I hope it never crashes!) I can't help it -- I'm a word nerd!


Sharon Lippincott said...

Herm, your folder must be working, but I think you knew this a long, long time ago!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Kathleen, you hit the nail on the head with your observation about time, practice and patience. Eventually it sinks in and we begin thinking in search mode automatically, but not overnight.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Oh, Linda, back up those files! They sound so precious.