Using Super Senses
Most humans rely on their eyes to learn about the world; sight is our dominant sense. But as you learned last week, life is far different for our furry friends. They don’t see nearly as well as we do.
So how do dogs and cats make up for their less-than-stellar vision? They use other, supersensitive senses like smell. Did you know dogs have 40 times the number of scent cells humans do? And both dogs and cats use whiskers to make sense of their surroundings. I learned these fascinating facts from this month’s books about our beloved pets. And comparing and contrasting our senses led me to think about how authors use our senses — and sensory details — when writing.
Souping Up Sensory Detail
Writers have a superpower. They can magically teleport readers into a book. A good book sucks the reader into the action. It’s like being in a favorite movie or video game. How do writers perform that trick? Sensory details.
Since humans rely on vision, our natural inclination as writers is to provide lots of details related to what we see. For example, we might write, “A pink starfish clung to the gray rock.” Pink and gray are both visual details.
Yet to truly capture a setting, we must act more like dogs and cats and employ our other senses too. What does the starfish’s ocean home smell like? If you could touch the starfish, would its skin feel lumpy or smooth or rough? What does the sea smell or taste like? Is it salty?
To help you make the shift to your other four senses when writing, try this exercise.
- Highlight sensory details in your work. First, pick a paragraph. Then grab a pack of highlighters or colored pens. Highlight any details you included about sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. Use a different color for each sense. Do you notice a pattern? Is your writing packed with visual description? Are there senses you’ve left out entirely?
- Close your eyes. Imagine yourself in your setting or sitting next to your character, and think about what you might hear, smell, taste, and feel. Real writer tip: If you’re writing about a place you’ve never visited, find a video online and listen. Or, take a trip to a local museum, zoo, or aquarium to suss out smells, sounds, and even textures if you can find touch tanks or petting programs.
- Revise. Go back to your paragraph and add sensory details that help give your reader a fuller picture of the world you’re writing about.
This is a technique I use each and every time I revise. I hope it helps you too!
Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, February 2020), CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST), illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.
THE O.O.L.F. FILES
This month, the Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files provides links to learn more about pet senses and resources for fine-tuning your sense of smell and touch.
- Learn more about dogs and their senses with the Dogs! A Science Tale app from the California Science Center.
- Watch this video (and use the accompanying lesson) from Ted Ed to find out how dogs sniff and process smell.
- Want to see what your dog sees? Check out this Dog Vision app.
- Ready to work on your sense of smell? I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to pick out the individual scents in a pile of stinky trash (dogs can do this!), but you can train yourself to notice smells in your world. Try this Mystery Smells experiment from KidsHealth to help you tune in to smells all around.
- What’s it feel like? Did you know your skin is the biggest sensory organ in your whole body? Learn to tune into your sense of touch with these fun activities from the University of Washington.