Two Exercises for Teaching Description and Using The Five Senses in Writing

black and red typewriter
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

One of the biggest losses I’m feeling from completing the semester at home is the inability to execute my favorite “Five Senses” activity in the classroom with my writing students. It’s one of my favorite days in the classroom, where I play music and ask students to sit and write based on prompts pertaining to their five senses.

THE FIRST EXERCISE

The exercise requires students to reach into a brown paper bag that I bring into the room and “touch” something that I’ve placed inside it. In the past, I’ve put pinecones, Silly Putty, or sand in it. After they touch it, they have to write what comes to mind from touching what’s in the bag. I also bring in something for them to taste (blindfolded) in another paper bag. They must write what the taste reminds them of in their prompt. As well, there is a scent they must smell from yet a third paper bag. For sight and sound, I ask them to view and listen to two things, then write what comes to mind. For sight, it might be an image of a vacation spot, a forest, or a crooked street. For sound, it may be “The Wedding March” or something that reminds them of being somewhere when that music was played. I allow students the entire hour and fifteen minutes to just get lost in writing.

As a teacher, part of what I try to do is make students less afraid of writing…of worrying about every little thing they put on paper. Of always striving to write something perfectly and get it right. I want them to use their imaginations. To think beyond what’s expected. To be quirky and random and be uniquely themselves.

photo of woman wearing white top holding purple flowers
Photo by Idy Tanndy

ANOTHER EXERCISE

During my MFA program, we had to do something similar. When looking through my files today for something I needed, I came across the assignment where I was required to write things that come to my mind regarding the five senses. These are personal and pertain to us. We were to brainstorm and then write about it.

HOW TO DO THIS EXERCISE

List things regarding the five senses that evoke a memory or something significant in your life. Write them down. This was my list that I compiled.

Olfactory (smell)

  1. The smell of baby powder in the crevice of a baby’s neck
  2. The smell of garlic and onion sautéing in olive oil
  3. The smell of asphalt on a hot summer day after rain
  4. The smell of hot dogs at the ballpark

Tactile (touch)

  1. The feel of pussy willows in the garden
  2. The softness of an earlobe
  3. The feel of a stiff, new pair of leather boots

Auditory (hearing/sound)

  1. The hum of the highway off in the distance
  2. The sound of honking horns on Madison Avenue from the apartment above
  3. The constant beeping of a video game on a long trip
  4. The sound of rain clinking on metal gutters
  5. The crack of a baseball bat
  6. Student applause in the classroom after persuasive speeches
  7. The ringing of church bells at Midnight Mass

Gustatory (taste)

  1. The sting of biting into a pepperoncini
  2. The taste of sour milk first thing in the morning
  3. The tingle of Boardwalk Fries with salt and vinegar
  4. The burn of sushi sashimi with wasabi
  5. Licking chocolate frosting off a wooden spoon

Visual (sight)

  1. The New York skyline at night
  2. A sleeping child damp with perspiration
  3. The morning dew on the garden
  4. A kid wearing “My mom is hotter than your mom” tee-shirt
  5. My grandfather in a white, ribbed, sleeveless tank
  6. 360 degree mirrors as you try on clothes

NEXT: Take one of those from the above list and roll it into a prompt.

My prompt ended up being used in my second novel, Baseball Girl. I’m sharing that below.

aerial aerial view architecture baseball
Camden Yards, the real Blackbirds Park from Baseball Girl. Photo by David McBee

FROM BASEBALL GIRL | Copyright 2015/Stephanie Verni

She was clenching the tote bag she held on her lap so severely that her knuckles were white. The woman next to her with silver hair and blood red fingernails leaned in and said, “It’s going to be fine, you know. Once we’re up, the rain and storms will be below us.”

“I hope you’re right,” Francesca said.

They were on the runway, waiting for clearance. At any minute, the big bird was going to ascend toward Heaven. She just hoped she wasn’t going to be its next customer.

In the end, the woman had been right. She was so tired from the long week that once they were up above the clouds and the flight was smooth, she actually dozed off for a few seconds. Never a romantic, or a dreamer, when she closed her eyes, a sense of calm came over her as she pictured seeing Joe on the field. She smiled to herself. For a few moments, she allowed herself to imagine him in his uniform, jogging in from the outfield, greeting her with his warm, beaming smile. Francesca also couldn’t wait to feel the Florida sunshine on her face knowing chills would run up her spine when she heard the sound she loved so much ever since she was a small child: the crack of a baseball bat.

It was spring training—and she was about to be a part of it all.

***

Anyone can do this exercise…and it’s a great way to start writing again…or to help get you out of a rut. The Five Senses Exercise can prompt a lot of creative scenarios, and I’d encourage you to give it a try.

xx

Stephanie

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Stephanie Verni is Professor of Communication at Stevenson University. She is the author of 5 works of fiction and the co-author of one academic textbook on Event Planning. Her character-driven books are set in beautiful Maryland locations and examine the realities of the human heart. Connect with her on Instagram at stephanie.verni or on Twitter at @stephverni. Or, visit her Amazon page at Stephanie Verni, Author.

 

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I've been blogging at Steph's Scribe since 2011. Professionally, I'm a writer, author, blogger, and a full-time professor at Stevenson University. Personally, I'm married with two children. My hobbies, which I often blog about, are reading, travel, fashion, movies, and sharing funny family stories or life wisdom. Thanks for checking out my blog.

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