How to Use Sensory Words in Writing

Sensory words paint vivid pictures that relate to the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. In fiction, nonfiction and poetry, they serve as a type of shorthand to evoke memories or feelings that draw readers into your world. Using sensory words helps readers understand what's happening in your story without the need to spell everything out. Sensory words show, but do not tell, your reader how your characters feel and what they're experiencing.

Types of Sensory Words

Sensory words can evoke any of the five senses. Words like short, tall, ruddy, gray, misshapen, elegant and dusty all express a physical or emotional characteristic -- each is something you can see. Sensory words that describe something you hear could include muffled, distorted, pop, ping or roar. Words that relate to touch include soft, rough or smooth, while words related to taste include salty, sweet or bitter. Smell words include rancid, fragrant or smoky.

Types of Writing

Certain types of writing work best with sensory words. Narrative writing, which includes works of fiction, memoirs or poems, works well with sensory writing, since sensory writing helps tell the story. Writing a line describing a man hurling himself into a chair, which squeaks in muffled protest under his ungainly weight, tells you a great deal about the man in just a few words. When you use sensory words, you don't need to say he was angry; your sensory words clearly show it. Narrative writing lends itself better to sensory word use than nonfiction or expository writing, which describes things and events in more concrete terms. Poetry often drips with sensory words. Since poems are generally short, using sensory words allows you to paint a picture that evokes complex feelings in just a few lines.

Parts of Speech

Adjectives, words used to modify or describe nouns, are most commonly used as sensory words. Adjectives used as sensory words to describe a house, for example, might include towering, menacing, sterile, dilapidated or cozy. Each carries an emotion that makes the house easy to visualize and classify. Adverbs, which modify verbs, can also qualify as sensory words. Examples of sensory adverbs describing a man walking might say that he walked furiously, dejectedly or fearfully. Verbs themselves can also serve as sensory words. Instead of walking, a man might stride, strut or shuffle. All describe a type of movement, but you immediately get a different sense from each about how he's moving and what it might mean. Gerunds, verb with "ing" ending, can also be sensory words. A bell is clanging or pealing rather than simply ringing.


It's important not to overdo your use of sensory language. Adding too much descriptive language makes your story too flowery and stilted. Use sensory words sparingly; it doesn't add to a story to describe the main character as a grumpy, unkind, mean, nasty, wretched, unhappy, angry, miserable and scowling man. One word -- scowling -- suggests the rest.

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