People who have ulcers need to go on a bland diet and avoid spicy foods. Most of them find it boring. People won’t eat tasteless food if they don’t have to. And no one will choose to read insipid writing.
So give them something tasty. Paint a picture. We have five physical senses, and our writing can appeal to all of them using sensory words.
Bland writing often overuses forms of to be. Lazy writers neglect to stop and think of verbs where something actually happens. They also overuse passive voice and commonplace adjectives and adverbs.
Pick strong nouns or verbs instead. But don’t diss adjectives entirely. They include many of the sensory words that can give your writing zest.
Mark Twain gave this well-known advice to another writer:
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
Notice that he said the adjectives that remain after merciless editing would be valuable. Tasty writing, therefore, doesn’t avoid adjectives. It strives for good ones.
Some examples of weak adjectives to kill
In the following table replacing an adjective or adverb phrase with a stronger noun or verb makes the thought more vivid.
|a tight grip
|a grip like a vice
|a specific breed, such as Great Dane
|quandary, predicament, dilemma
|financial titan, mogul
|stumbled, crept, dawdled
|sprinted, galloped, raced
Interpretive vs descriptive adjectives
Some adjectives make the reader interpret them. Others more effectively describe the picture the writer wants to portray. Consider: “The beautiful woman walked with a little boy along a sandy beach.”
Beautiful can mean almost anything. It doesn’t provide a distinctive description, so the reader has to interpret it and make his own picture.
By beautiful woman, one person might see a tall, slender white woman with long blond hair. Someone else might envision a petite, buxom black woman with cornrows.
And what’s a little boy? When I was in high school, the jerk behind the counter at the Burger Chef called me a little kid. After all, he was in college. By “little boy,” most people could imagine anyone from a toddler to a short middle school student.
As multiple teachers probably told you, please be more specific.
I can’t think of any easy substitutions that will fix that sentence. Describe the woman and the boy before you say they were walking on the beach. Then your reader can actually envision their stroll.
But please, not on a sandy beach. Readers will see all beaches as sandy unless you tell them otherwise. If an adjective adds nothing to what’s already implicit in the noun, kill it.
Helping your reader see
Do you want to write about a tall building?
Skyscraper is more descriptive, but the song “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” refers to “a skyscraper seven stories tall.” Actually, the first building ever called a skyscraper wasn’t much taller than that (ten stories).
How can you vividly convey the height of a particular building?
You might say you get a crick in your neck trying to see the observation deck of the Willis Tower from the ground. On the other hand, I used to drive past a hotel of 15 or so stories. It scrapes the prairie sky in lonely isolation, surrounded by corn fields.
Common color names, in general, fail to paint a vivid enough picture to count as effective sensory words.
Blue sky is interpretive. On the other hand, cerulean, powder blue, or Carolina blue sky are more descriptive––even though most people probably don’t know what cerulean means. Or for that matter consider midnight blue sky, or navy blue sky. Now you see a completely different scene, don’t you? Likewise, ruby, crimson, or scarlet convey more than red.
And what about brilliant, bright, clear, vibrant color on the one hand? Pale, dingy, camouflaged, or indistinct on the other?
Use vision words as metaphors. Napoleon Bonaparte was very short physically, but certainly a towering figure in history. Many would-be seven-foot basketball players have failed to make the team because of their minuscule effect on the court in tryouts.
Using sensory words beyond the sense of sight
I have searched the Internet for examples of improving sentences using sensory words. Most of the sputtering “before” sentences fail to convey a sense of sight. I suppose most lazy writers don’t even think of describing other senses.
Maybe instead of writing a dull verb, a gossip cackles in glee to share the latest tidbit. And remember someone’s loud tie. Words related to hearing can describe something else besides sounds.
Likewise, words that convey texture or other aspects of the sense of touch apply to more than feeling. The smooth talker and the coarse jester are probably not the same person, and you might not want to reach out and touch either of them.
Feeling, by the way, can mean either physical sensations of touch or an emotional state. Search for “power words” and you can find numerous lists that include hundreds of them.
Marketing, according to cliché, depends on appealing to fear and greed. Good marketing, in fact, appeals to a broader range than that. You’ll find the lists of power words conveniently grouped by the emotion they invoke.
Someone else compiled a mammoth list of sensory words. He also shows how to use them not only in the body of your writing but in flavorful email subject lines and social media profiles.
I began this post contrasting bland and insipid writing with tasty. Now, let me say that using sensory language gives your writing the fragrance of the living instead of the odor of dead prose.