If you can imagine a world without colors, textures, sounds or music, you have an idea of what reading an essay or a story without sensory details would be like. Sights and sounds, along with other sense-related descriptions, help bring flat writing to life to grab and keep the readers' attention. When your middle-school student adds these details to his writing, remind him to use carefully chosen, vivid, scene-painting words so he doesn't overwhelm his audience with an avalanche of words.
If your child finds it difficult to find sensory details for her writing, have her put down her pen and pick up some children's picture books. Some useful examples include "Owl Moon," by Jane Yolen, "Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type," by Doreen Cronin or "All the Colors of the Earth," by Sheila Hamanaka. As you read them together, talk about the words and phrases the authors used to paint clear word pictures, including adjectives, simile, metaphor and onomatopoeia, or words that imitate the sounds they describe. In Cronin's book, for example, you'll read about the "clickety-clack" of the typewriter and the "moo" of the cows.
Using All the Senses
Often, students find it easy to write about visual details, but they forget about hearing, touch, taste or smell. Help your child by discussing what someone might hear, smell or taste while standing in the middle of a pictured scene. Carry this a step further by next creating a concept web of the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures of a recent or favorite personal experience. For example, he might write "trip to the beach" in the center of the web. Then, for one "arm," he would list words that describe what he saw, one for what he heard, one for the smells at the beach, and so on. Encourage him to think about phrases like "salty air whispering across the surface of the white caps," instead of "The wind was blowing and there were waves."
Showing, Not Explaining
Too often, student writers expound on the scene in a story, rather than giving the reader a picture. Encourage your writer to show the sensory details, rather than talking about them. She might start with "The factory was empty because it closed down 10 years before when the owner died." However, unless the owner's death is going to be an important part of the story, the reader probably isn't interested in the "why." Instead, she might write about the cavernous space or the spider webs in the corners or even the echoes of the character's footsteps as he entered the plant, seeing only dust and a few pieces of left-behind paper on the floor. Now the reader can see that place.
Not all of the sensory descriptions have to come from adjectives. Strong, striking verbs and nouns contribute strongly to the picture, especially when used in a simile or a metaphor. "Looking up at his face, she felt like she was staring at the clouds" is more powerful than "The boy was tall." That abandoned factory might be "as quiet as a church on Monday morning" or might be so dirty that it "looked like an abandoned archaeological dig." Hyperbole, or exaggeration, makes an even stronger statement. Think about "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse." Help your child think about how she might tell a friend about the scene in the story.
- Literacy Education Online: Using Specific, Concrete Details
- Picture This! A Guide for Picture Book Writers: Making Sense of Sensory Details
- Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type; Doreen Cronin
- All the Colors of the Earth; Sheila Hamanaka
- A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet; Kathryn Lasky
- Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images