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Using sensory detail to increase objectivity and reader engagement

September 10, 2009

In my news-writing class, I’ve been trying to help my students to incorporate sensory detail into their writing. In journalism this is especially important because, as I think of it, using sensory detail—relying on the five senses to describe what a reporter sees, hears, feels (in the sense of touch) and, when appropriate, tastes and smells—is the only sure-fire way for writers, especially those just beginning, to relay a scene to a reader that is free of bias and writerly interpretation. You don’t need to say a woman is beautiful (opinion) when you can say she has flowing blond hair and pale blue eyes (at least closer to objective description, though we could argue over whether “pale” is subjective).

In class, we start with the sentence “A boy is riding a bicycle, eating an ice cream cone.” After the students rightly identify this as telling—”There’s no description, so it can’t be showing,” they tell me—I ask them to close their eyes and tell me what they see. They always start off with the “boy” or “bicycle,” but before long they’ve put tassels on that bicycle and a red beanie hat with a spinning propeller on that boy. As we move through sight, then sound, touch, taste and smell, the white board fills up with their imaginings. Typically, as we progress, the story takes a dark turn: a gang of neighborhood toughs, whooping and yelling “Ai-ya!” jumps out from the behind the jagged brick wall on the right, or a cat crosses paths with the boy, hits his tire, and the squish of the kitty’s gelatinous insides coincides with the grating crackle of the boy’s teeth as they impact the pavement and snap, the metallic tang of blood filling his mouth.

Showing, via the five senses, is so much more delicious than telling.

It’s not easy, though. It takes time. I’ve been struggling in my own writing with getting into this business of detail-oriented writing. I’m impatient. Right now, I’m trying to write a passage describing how my friends and I, descending a narrow alleyway in an old-world neighborhood in Zigong, China, look up to see a pair of pedicabs at the bottom of the hill, the drivers out and ready to fight at a perceived slight. This is in 1999,  a few days after NATO had launched an attack in their Serbian air war, killing three Chinese journalists, and tensions in China were, as they say, running high, with protests against Americans and anyone, really, who was white.

I have my little crew—five Americans and two of their Chinese friends—strolling down this hill, cracked gray buildings pressing in on either side, funneling them toward the waiting, angry pedicab drivers—and I can’t move the story forward. I know what needs to happen, but I’m stuck in the action. Impatient, I don’t care about the details: I want to throw my team headlong into the waiting drivers. But the more I write, the more the passage feels like caricature. I could give the men at the bottom of the hill—what? yellow teeth? close-set eyes?—but that won’t make them any more real. What I’m writing is fiction, but it’s also something that, in my own life, a decade ago, came very close to happening. I close my eyes, and don’t see anything.

So—Procrastination, the bad-influence friend of the writer—led me online to search for inspiration. I don’t know that I’ve found it, but I did find a spot on the Colorado SU Web site meant to help me out, to remind me that telling is dry, and that showing, with all five senses, brings the reader in. I’m posting it here so my students won’t think I’ve made up this five-senses stuff, that it actually works. I’m posting it here to remind myself as well.

Writing is a damn hard business. We want to rush on. We want to let it “flow.” But most of the time, every word is a challenge. You sit there, in the dark, facing the computer screen, fingers jabbing the keys, and dreck troubles your screen.

But not always. I remember a time, years ago, when I considered myself a “serious” writer—which is to say that I spent more time and more of my ego on it than I do now—when I’d sit and tinker for an hour with a sentence rather than trying to fly my protagonist and his friends down that hill. Rather than rushing headlong into combat, I’d note the gray blanket in the window, used as a curtain, and chitter of a rat, somewhere just out of sight. This was a beautiful time for me, as a writer, even if I didn’t get out more than a sentence or two an hour.

This morning, as Procrastination tells me that writing this blog post is a fine use of my time, I squint into the screen (while my daughter calls me for breakfast, my 3-year-old, chanting Poppa, Poppa, it’s time, it’s time), waiting for the sentence to emerge.

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