How to write with sensory detail and active verbs

LC, founder of eFrog Press, hosts the Take the Leap blog and regularly blogs about all things ebook!

“I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs.” Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

An author I was working with recently had written an amazing story but included very little detail. I was reminded of a powerful writing exercise developed by two of the finest writing teachers I have ever known—Gary Bradshaw (1948-1994) and Frank Barone, active poet and retired teacher. Based on the 21 Senses exercises in Donald Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing (Houghton Mifflin, 1968), writers are encouraged to generate their own topics in their own voices while producing specific, detailed, “showing” sentences and paragraphs on 21 different senses. The results are dramatic!

Bradshaw and Barone challenged their high school writing seminar students to eliminate verbs of being from their writing—almost an impossible task for some. Students were also challenged to compose 21 tightly written, “showing” paragraphs. The 21 Senses can transform your writing. So take the challenge! Here are the first five senses complete with models written by Bradshaw and Barone for their students.


Below the tree’s green-yellow leaves, shafts of light slant toward the ground. Dust particles, like muted diamonds, swim, circling upward. These glowing bits of dust spin dizzily up the streams of light until they climb, swirling into the tree’s canopy of green, yellow, and heavy shade.


He slammed the door shut and kicked the trash can across the room. It banged into the desk and clattered along the wall. In a few dying spins it groaned and sighed, and in a few seconds rattled to a stop. He eased his body into a chair and felt the leather wheeze against his body. Then he closed his eyes and waited for the click of the door handle.


I cradled the handle of the hoe in my palms and jabbed at the weeds again and again. Soon blisters formed. With each jab the blisters swelled and screamed.  Each pull of the hoe rubbed them raw. Fluid popped out and the red layer of skin, exposed to the air, burned even more. I picked at the skin and ripped the dead layers away. Every time the raw skin made contact, circles of pain raced through every nerve, searching for relief.


As their lips kissed, her peppermint lip gloss startled him. Its tart sweetness tickled his taste buds. Involuntarily, he bit his tongue; the salty taste of his own blood shocked him. Almost pushing her away, recoiling, the throb of pain, sweetness of peppermint, and the saltiness of blood swirled together, nauseating him.


Sliding into my car, last night’s sweaty workout assaulted my nose. The musk had mingled with my sheepskin seat covers, bringing the kicking, bleating animal alive to my nostrils. Because the rain pounded against my car’s windows, I drove fourteen miles with the heavy dampness of sheep’s wool smothering me.

The Challenge

Choose one of the first five senses and share you own example with us. Be daring and write all five. The other 16 senses will be featured in upcoming blog posts.

Share your favorite writing exercises. What helps you get those writer juices flowing?

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