It’s almost too easy.
By using sensory words to evoke the sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell; smart and attractive writers just like you are able to make their words burst to life in their reader’s mind.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- The science behind sensory details (e.g. why sensory words are so persuasive);
- The definition of sensory details (plus examples);
- How answering five simple questions will help you write descriptive details that pack your content with sensory language;
- 500+ sensory words you can incorporate into your own writing (right now).
Let’s dive in.
The Colossal Power of Sensory Details
Remember the final scene in Field of Dreams when Ray Kinsella has a catch with his dad?
You can smell the grass on the field.
You can hear the sound of the baseball hitting their gloves.
And you can feel Ray’s years of guilt melting away as he closes his eyes, smiles, and tosses the ball back to his dad.
(Be honest. You’re crying right now, aren’t you?)
Field of Dreams made you feel like you were in Ray’s shoes, on his field, playing catch with dad.
The scene creates such a vivid sensory experience for many viewers that whenever they think of playing catch, this scene will come up alongside their own childhood memories.
When you paint a strong scene in your audience’s mind, you make it easier for them to pull it back up from their memory. You’ve essentially bookmarked it for them so they can easily find it when something — a sight, a smell, a sound — reminds them of it.
That’s the power of content that incorporates sensory details.
And this power isn’t limited to cinema classics capable of making grown men cry. For centuries, literary giants have been packing their prose with power words that evoke the senses:
“Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial”
— William Shakespeare (circa 1599)
In addition to The Bard, authors like Maya Angelou, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens excel at the use of sensory language. So do literally every famous poet you learned about in school.
And that begs the obvious question…
Why are Sensory Details so Effective?
The brains of human beings handle sensory words differently than ordinary words.
In a 2011 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, experts found that our brains process “tangible” (i.e. sensory) words faster than other words.
And in a study published for Brain and Language in 2012, psychologists found that a certain part of our brain is “activated” when we read sensory words.
In other words:
So, we know why sensory details are powerful. And we know writers have been tapping into their power for a long, long time.
Now let’s define them and go over a few examples:
What are Sensory Details?
Sensory details are descriptive words that appeal to the 5 senses — using sensory imagery, they describe how we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the world around us.
Let’s break each one down:
1. Sight Sensory Words
Words related to vision describe the appearance of something (its color, size, shape, and so on).
Sight word examples:
- Her golden hair looked disheveled thanks to the gust of wind.
- He was a towering presence.
- I ordered a large orange juice, but the waiter brought me a teeny-tiny glass the size of a thimble.
2. Sound Sensory Words
Words related to hearing often describe the sound they make (known as onomatopoeia), but this isn’t always the case.
Examples of hearing words:
- He had a big, booming voice.
- The sound of screeching tires was soon followed by the deafening sound of a car horn.
- As I peeked under the bed, the cackling laughter coming from the closet made the hairs on my arms stand up.
3. Touch Sensory Words
Touch words describe the texture of how something feels. They can also describe emotional feelings.
Examples of touch words:
- Two minutes into the interview, I knew his abrasive personality would be an issue if we hired him.
- With a forced smile, I put on the itchy Christmas sweater my grandmother bought me.
- The Hot Pocket was scalding on the outside, but ice-cold in the middle.
4. Taste Sensory Words
Examples of taste words:
- It’s a bittersweet situation.
- Her zesty personality caught Karl’s eye.
- The scrumptious jalapeno poppers comforted Karl after his bitter rejection.
5. Smell Sensory Words
Words related to smell describe — yes, you guessed it — how things smell. Often underutilized, sensory words connected with smell can be very effective.
Examples of smell words:
- The pungent smell was unmistakable: someone in this elevator was wearing Axe Body Spray.
- No matter the expiration date, it was clear from its rancid stench the milk had gone bad.
- The flowery aroma was a welcome change after the elevator and milk incidents.
Bonus: Taste and Smell Sensory Words
Because they’re closely related, some sensory words can be used for both taste and smell. Examples: fruity, minty, and tantalizing.
Next, we’ll look at a few real-world examples of sensory details.
Sensory Details: Examples in the Wild
Imagine the following headline came across your Twitter feed:
How to Avoid Using Boring Stock Photo Images in Your Content
Would you click it?
Could you read the headline without falling asleep?
The answers are probably “no” and “heck no.”
Now imagine you saw this headline:
Much better, right?
The simple addition of the sensory word “cringeworthy” changes the tone of the entire headline. Instead of yawning, you’re thinking of an awkward or embarrassing moment you really don’t want to relive.
Let’s look at a few more modern-day examples of sharp people using sensory language to spruce up their content:
Using Sensory Words in Author Bios
I’ll pick on me for this one.
Here’s one of my old author bios:
Kevin J. Duncan is the Editor of Smart Blogger, where he helps writers learn the skills they need to land writing gigs that pay.
Now look at the author bio my friend Henneke wrote for Writer’s Block: 27 Techniques to Overcome It Forever:
Henneke Duistermaat is an irreverent copywriter and business writing coach. She’s on a mission to stamp out gobbledygook and to make boring business blogs sparkle.
My bio is devoid of sensory words (or any interesting words at all, if we’re being honest).
Henneke’s is chock full of them.
Her bio is interesting.
Mine is boring.
The lesson? Add at least one sensory word to your author bio.
Using Sensory Words in Social Media Profiles
Some people opt for brevity when writing their social media profiles, and that’s fine.
But if you want your Twitter profile (or Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media profile) to stand out from the crowd, sprinkle in a sensory word or two.
Here’s an example from my badly-neglected Instagram account:
“Enchanting” and “adorably-jubilant” are wonderful sensory words — so wonderful, it’s a shame they’re wasted on a profile no one sees.
Look at your own profiles and see if there’s a place to add a sensory word or two. They’ll help your profile jump off the screen.
Heck, see if you can use enchanting and adorably-jubilant.
They deserve to be seen.
Using Sensory Words in Introductions
The opening lines of your content are so important.
If you’re a student, your opening sets the tone for your teacher (who we both know is dying to use his red pen).
If you’re an author, your opening can be the difference between someone buying your book or putting it back on the shelf in favor of one of those Twilight books (probably).
And if you’re a blogger, writer, content marketer, or business; your opening can hook the reader (increasing dwell time, which is great in Google’s eyes) or send them scurrying for the “back” button.
It’s why we put such an emphasis on introductions here at Smart Blogger.
Sometimes our openings hook you with a question.
Sometimes we strike a note of empathy or (like this post) focus on searcher intent.
And sometimes we give you a heaping helping of sensory words:
Imagine you’re sitting in a lounge chair on the beach, staring out over the glittering sea, the ocean breeze ruffling your hair, listening to the slow, steady rhythm of the waves.
In the above opening for How to Become a Freelance Writer, Starting from Scratch, Jon Morrow uses figurative language to set a scene for the reader.
And it’s highly, highly effective.
Using Sensory Words in Email Subject Lines
Like you, your readers are flooded with emails.
And with open rates in a steady decline, people are trying anything and everything to make their email subject lines stand out:
- Capitalized words;
- All lowercase letters;
- Two exclamation points;
- Clickbait that would make even BuzzFeed go, “that’s too far, man.”
You name it, people are trying it.
Want a simpler, far-more-effective way to help your emails stand out from the crowd?
Add a sensory detail.
Brian Dean loves to include words like “boom” in his subjects:
The folks at AppSumo and Sumo (formerly SumoMe) regularly feature descriptive words in their subjects and headlines.
Here’s one example:
And sensory language appears in most everything Henneke writes, including her subject lines.
In this one she also uses an emoji related to her sensory word. Very clever:
Now that we’ve covered several examples, let’s dig a bit deeper…
Let’s discuss some practical steps you can take that will make adding figurative language to your own writing style a breeze:
How Descriptive Details Can Pack Your Writing With Sensory Language
If you’ve taken a good English or creative writing class, you’ve probably been told a time or two to “show, don’t tell.”
This means you should create an engaging experience for your audience; not just tell them what you want them to know.
You accomplish this by using descriptive writing that conveys sensations and lets readers experience your words (rather than simply read them).
And how do you do that, exactly?
Ask yourself these five questions when you’re writing:
#1. What Do You See?
It isn’t enough to tell your readers there was a scary house in your neighborhood when you were a child. Describe the house to them in vivid detail.
What shade of gray was it?
Were the doors boarded up?
Precisely how many ghostly figures did you see staring at you from the upstairs bedroom windows, and how many are standing behind you right now?
Paint a mental picture for your readers.
#2. What Do You Hear?
We listen to uptempo songs to push us through cardio workouts. Many of us listen to rainfall when we’re trying to sleep. Some of us listen to Justin Bieber when we want to punish our neighbors.
Want to transplant readers into your literary world?
Talk about the drip, drip, drip of the faucet.
Mention the squeaking floors beneath your feet.
Describe the awful music coming from your next-door-neighbor’s house.
#3. How Does it Feel?
Touch sensory words can convey both tactile and emotional sensations.
Can you describe to the reader how something feels when touched? Is it smooth or rough? Round or flat? Is it covered in goo or is it goo-less?
Paint a picture for your reader so they can touch what you’re touching.
The same goes for emotion. Help the reader feel what you (or your character) are feeling. Draw them in.
#4. What Does it Taste Like?
Does the beach air taste salty? Is the roaring fire so intense you can taste the smoke? Is the smell of your roommate’s tuna fish sandwich so strong you can taste it from across the room?
Tell your audience.
Make them taste the fishiness.
#5. How Does it Smell?
It wasn’t a basement you walked into — it was a musty, moldy basement.
And you didn’t simply enjoy your Mom’s homemade lasagna. You inhaled the aromatic scents of sauce, cheese, and basil.
Evoking the sense of smell is possibly the most effective way to pull readers out of their world and into yours.
So when you sit down to write, ask yourself if it’s possible to describe how something smells. And if you can? Do it.
The Massive Sensory Words List: 583 (and Counting) Descriptive Words to Supercharge Your Writing With Sensory Language
Once you’ve asked and answered the five questions above, your writing will be packed with sensory details.
In time, you’ll build up your own massive list of sensory words you can reference and sprinkle throughout your work (no thesaurus needed!).
But in the meantime, here’s my list.
Use them often:
|SIGHT WORDS||SOUND WORDS|
|TOUCH WORDS||TASTE WORDS|
|SMELL WORDS||TASTE & SMELL WORDS|
Are You Ready to Unleash the Power of Sensory Details?
It’s time to say goodbye.
Goodbye to lifeless words that sit on the page.
Goodbye to indifferent readers ready to move on to something, anything, else.
You now know why sensory details are so effective. You know how to sprinkle descriptive words throughout your content. And you now have a massive, ever-growing list of sensory words to bookmark and come back to again and again.
Variations of the following quote have been attributed to everyone from Carl W. Buehner to Maya Angelou, but regardless of who said it, and how they said it, it’s true:
“People may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”
It’s time to make your readers feel.
Are you ready?
Then let’s do this thing.