The warming temperatures and sunlit days can make it hard to buckle down at the computer and get all my writing done. On days like these, who wouldn’t rather be outside running a trail, hiking a mountain, tucking toes into a lake, or lazing by a waterfall? Springtime temptations pull me from the keyboard. My compulsion for writing pulls me back. And on days like these, I make the work more interesting by writing with all my senses.
You may have heard about writing with all your senses, but this is different. I’m not talking about closing my eyes and imaging what a place looks and smells like, and then incorporating all those details into my work. Though that is good practice, I’m talking about using your senses in a different way.
Let’s start with the eyes. What do you see when you look at a newspaper article, an online blog or the pages of a book? Long, unbroken blocks of text? That’s hard on your eyes. Too much reading with no breaks isn’t inviting and doesn’t hold your attention. You need a moment now and then to rest and think. So when I write, I break it up — even more than I learned to do in grammar school, with a single paragraph for each new idea. Instead of semicolons (which I love by the way, but save for journaling rather than torturing readers with them), I employ em dashes (those long, double dashes so named because they are the width of a letter “M” in typography) to give my readers a little more air between all the letters. Readers seems to like more breaks these days, or maybe they need more time to ponder what they’ve read.
The ears are next. After writing a piece, I read it aloud. How do my words sound? Are they clunky and hard to listen to, with an uneven pattern and abrupt stops? Did I repeat a word over and over again, and if I did, is there a good substitute? I listen for alliteration, which I may use to purposely portray the personality of the piece — more often, it’s an accident and I have to ax it. If I employ onomatopoeia, I listen to hear if my choices sizzle and pop or fall flat. I also read aloud to see if I ended each sentence — especially those sentences that open a piece or a paragraph — with the right word so the reader knows what comes next. Sometimes I mess up and bury that important word in the middle, like in the first sentence of this paragraph where I ended the sentence with “next” instead of “ears.”
While I’m listening with my ears, I’m also sensing the words with my mouth. How do they feel in there when I say them aloud? Are they knocking against my teeth, rolling along my tongue or sloshing around from cheek to cheek? Are they sharp like tiny knives nipping my gums, or smooth and soothing like lilac petals against my soft palate? Whatever they’re doing and how they make my mouth feel has to match their meaning. Lollipop loops feel relaxing and fun. So do mud puddles, blubber and bumblebees, while cracks, crags and crevasses make me catch my breath. Angst and agony feel bad in my mouth and I typically would not use these words in a newspaper column except here, to make a point about tasting my words before I type them.
The next sense I use is my nose. “Does this pass the smell test?” I ask. When the writing is insincere, uninformed or mean-spirited, it stinks. When there’s an ulterior motive I can smell it a mile away, and the foul odor wrinkles my nose. Even the most well-intentioned writers sometimes allow stink bombs to seep into their work. I sniff them out in my own writing and dutifully flush them out.
Finally, there’s the sense of touch — I read the piece and think about how it makes me feel inside. Do the words make me smile or cringe? Am I happy, sad, intrigued, or confused? Do I feel enlightened, amused or betrayed? Did the writer waste my time? Do I even like this person who wrote these words, transferred their thoughts to my head, and maybe affected how I view the world? Or have they irritated me and ruined my day? That sense is the most important of all, because it’s what sticks. When a writer makes me feel a certain way, I remember it forever.
I guard my feelings because they affect my life, how I behave, communicate with others and respond to the world. How a writer makes me feel affects who and how I am in the world, and so I want them to respect that. This is what I think about most when I write. Not in a narcissistic way, because I know my readers are smart and discerning, and if I’m making them feel a way they don’t enjoy, they will stop reading. But in a hopeful, loving way that sees them as a person, just like me, enjoying those moments when we feel better about ourselves and the people with whom we share this planet. Because though we may not see, hear, taste, smell, or feel the same way about everything we read, deep down, we are so much the same.
Susan Joy Paul is an author, editor and freelance writer. She has lived on Colorado Springs’ northwest side for more than 20 years. Contact Susan with comments and suggestions at email@example.com.