the official website of
Bob Nailor

Guest Writing Tip...

Sensory Details
by Terrie Murray

We've left the spring rains of Oregon far, far behind and we're basking in the warm sunshine of The Coronado National Forest in Southeast Arizona. As I sit here at a well-worn, wooden picnic table within South Fork of Cave Creek, I can hear the raucous calls of Arizona’s Gray-Breasted Jay, and in the background I can hear other birds singing - a Wilson's Warbler, a Northern Flicker off in the distance, and something that sounds like a small flycatcher. I'm not so certain about that one; a single note song, descending slightly at the end, almost like the sound of a young kitten's cry. Obviously, I need to brush up on my flycatcher songs.

Sensory detail is important in any genre of writing, but it is even more important in travel and nature writing. To transport your readers, it is necessary to use all the sensory details you can. For example, I could say this Arizona mountain forest "has lots of different kinds of trees," or I could describe how the smooth white bark of the sycamore contrasts with the twisted branches of green and gold leaves. Or and how the juniper's sharp tang perfumes the air in the afternoon heat. Of course, I could just write there's an Acorn Woodpecker on one of those junipers, but wouldn’t you rather hear about how comical he looks, with the red spot on the back of his head and his yellow and white clown make-up?

It is these small details which add realism to your articles or stories, and it also separates the writer who has first-hand knowledge of a subject from a writer who did his research on the Internet, never actually experiencing it for himself.

When you travel, always carry a notebook and always record as much detail about a place as you can, even if you have no plans to write an article. Those notes you took in Scotland about how the damp air soaked through your clothes and coated you with tiny, crystal droplets, how the fog moved in so quickly that it became impossible to see the tops of the hills in front of you. Those notes might come in very handy if in five years you decide to write a novel set in Scotland.

The right details at the right time can also provide you with credibility. For example, the Acorn Woodpecker calling behind me sounds something like "WON-ka, WON-ka WON-ka!" No other woodpecker sounds quite like it. If you say, "I hear an Acorn Woodpecker," you’d be accurate. If you say, "I hear an Acorn Woodpecker calling 'WON-ka, WON-ka, WON-ka,'" others who have heard an Acorn Woodpecker will say "yes, that’s what they sound like. This writer knows his stuff." Write those details down now, for use later.

I recently read an excellent book by Pete Dunne, called "The Feather Quest." Although it is primarily a book for birders, Dunne is a master at inserting sensory detail into his writing. For example:

"In our travels, Linda and I have filtered a lot of North America through our lungs, tasted both the good and bad of it on our tongues. We have known and savored the clean air that smells of pine. The clean air that smells of sage. Clean air that smells of brine. Clean air that carries the flinty, dry, scrubbed smell of desert sand.

But until we reached the Arctic, I had never breathed clean air that smelled like air. Just air. Unless what I was mistaking for air was actually the cold no-smell of ice. Ice or ice-laden air. I think I understand, now, what people mean when they speak of air so clean that it intoxicates, air so clean it makes you greedy for more, so greedy you think you'll never get enough of it."

Reading "the air was clean and fresh" might be accurate, but it wouldn't make me want to experience the Arctic for myself. Pete Dunne's two paragraphs on Arctic air are very compelling.

Get intp the habit of paying attention to sensory detail wherever you are. Start now - wherever you are. Use all your senses. What do you see? What is the quality of the light? How does the air smell? Is it warm or cool, dry or damp? What tastes cross your tongue? What sounds do you hear? Write it down. Do the same thing in your backyard, at the bus stop, at your favorite coffee shop. Do it so often that noticing sensory detail becomes second nature. That way, on your next journey to a new place, you'll be tuned in and ready to notice; and write down everything.

© 2000 Terrie Murray

  Click to add a comment - say something!


I feel saitsifed after reading that one.
~ Reply to this comment ~