Senseless Description: When Your Writing Doesn’t Feel Real

Many writers I talk to say they are very visual—they can envision every detail of a scene, they know exactly what their characters look like, and they see the action unfold like a movie in their mind. Not long ago, I would have said the same thing about myself. After all, I spent about a decade as a professional video editor—working with pictures was what I had been trained to do. So I must be a visual person, right?


I read this blog post by Patrick Ross, and it opened my eyes (so to speak). I realized that I’m not a “eye-writer,” I’m an “ear-writer.” I process the world through sound. Sure, when I would study for a test in school I would have memorized my notes/texts to the point where I could see the words exactly in my mind. But I cemented them there by reading the notes aloud multiple times. I am much more likely to recognize a voice before I recognize the face (and recognize the face LONG before I remember the name!). I can remember entire swaths of conversations, but not a thing about the surroundings I was in at the time. Music has the power to plunge me into a memory so vividly I can forget where I am.

Turns out, I write by ear.

This revelation explains a lot about my writing. My first drafts are always “short.” They are always sparse on description. I have to go back in and pump it up in later revisions. But I still get feedback from my crit partners that the world is not vivid enough—that they can’t see it and feel it. They are not immersed in it.

Writers are told that we need to engage all the senses when we write. I have a disadvantage from the start because I have no sense of smell. So that is usually missing in my stories—which is unfortunate because smell is one of the strongest associative senses, bringing memories flooding back. I thought I had the visual part down (because I was a “visual” person, right?), but turns out I’m light on that, too. What I think is adequate description is not quite enough to immerse the reader—because I process the world through sound. What is adequate description for me (I can read books with very little physical description and not mind at all) is not enough for most other readers. Certainly not enough to build a world.

So now I know this about myself, and can work on improving it. I need to be very conscious of how much visual description I am giving and the quality of detail in that description. I have to remember to go beyond what I think is enough. I need to play to my strength as well and add more auditory description. And, as always, I need to ask someone what things smell like so I can drop that in where appropriate.

So, if people aren’t connecting to your world, take a close look at your description. What sensory details are missing? And then try to figure out why you write that way.

I love continuing to learn about my craft—because in the process I always learn more about myself.

What’s your strong suit in sensory description? What do you struggle with?

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  1. Kerry, what a fascinating post, and I’m so pleased my post on eye-vs-ear writing triggered this self-reflection for you. Yes, based on your background, I would have guessed you were an “eye” writer as well, rather than an “ear” writer.

    As you know, I realized with some surprise that I am an “eye” writer. But here’s something remarkable; I too suffer from smell impairment! Now my sense of smell is not completely absent, but I can really only pick up extreme odors. In my writing, I have to intentionally insert that sense, and yes, I’ll rely on family and friends for guidance. (Also, aren’t you jealous of foodies who can taste so much more than we can because of the important role smell plays in taste?)

    Keep writing!

    • Patrick – Very interesting about the smell/taste issue! I, too can only smell very strong oders–musky things like skunk and cigarette smoke, mostly. I once floored a perfume seller when I could not smell any of her scents. 🙂

      I’m not jealous of foodies so much as I wish I LIKED a broaded range of foods, because I find myself to be extremely picky in what I eat because very little appeals to my pallette. So I can sometimes be left high and dry trying to find things I can eat, since I am so driven by texture and the LOOK of the food before I can even convince myself to put it in my mouth.

      Thanks for your post and your comment!


  2. I tend to have too much description sometimes and it slows the story. I too lack a sense of smell, but here I use my imagination. I also have trouble reading body language, though, and that’s where I get in trouble because my beta readers ask me whose head are we in. Sometimes it takes three or four rewrites to get it right.

    • Isn’t it amazing how every writer has a weakness somewhere in interpreting the world around them? Thank goodness for beta readers and crit partners!

  3. What an eye-opening post. Though I’ve been told often enough to include all the senses,I had never thought of the difference between writing by sound and by sight. The scene I’m struggling with now will be more vivid if I add smell. (A mother and daughter are together in the kitchen; possibilities are limitless.)

    • Sandra – Patrick’s post really made it clear to me how we all have our strong senses in the way we interpret the world, and we really need to be aware of that when we write so we can comensate.


  4. Interesting post, thank you. I’m always happier with dialogue and, like you, my descriptions don’t satisfy other people. I do listen shamelessly to conversations carried on in public, for words, structure and accent but I don’t think I’ve ever really seen and absorbed surroundings. New task, methinks.

    • We’re always learning new ways to enhance our writing, aren’t we? That’s one thing I love about this craft–there’s always something new to learn.

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