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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