Writing to Connect: Does Your Writing Stink?

hyacinths and freesias at the kitchen windowIs it pungent, reeking of ripe stenches and rotten odours? Or is it fresh and fragrant, evocative, scented and sensual?

Both are good. The bland sterility of written anosmia, on the other hand, eventually leaves me cold. Anosmia in real life terrifies me. I’ve experienced it.  (Please read Coming to My Senses – I had to learn how to reframe and re-experience my life.)

Smell is the sense of memory and desire. ~ Jean-Jaques Rousseau.

We all have different ways of processing and representing information, our own preferred sensory perceptions, and we can unconsciously lean towards our own preferences in our writing.

Many writers are comfortable in the realms of the abstract, dealing more in concepts than any sensual representation, but if we want our writing to resonate with as many readers as possible, it’s vital that we incorporate all of the senses  – without overdoing it.

The majority of people have a strong preference for processing visually, aurally or less frequently, kinaesthetically – which involves movement, physical sensation or emotions that evoke physical experience.

Many bloggers include only visual imagery in their writing. Maybe this is because so many writing books  say Don’t explain..show. The advice is good; leading our readers through an experience, allowing them to recreate it for themselves is more powerful than telling them how to feel and overexplaining our own thoughts and feelings. But ‘show’ is an inherently visual word.

When we write, we also connect with our inner voice, reproduce the rhythms of speech and the world around us, manipulating our readers’ breathing responses and reading pace through the sounds, punctuation and spacing  we use. There’s often a crossover with the kinaesthetic experience here.

We’re also encouraged to use action verbs to create a sense of movement. These connect with our visual memory and our body’s memory.

Combine the three and many people assume it means that the best writing is journalistic or evocative of comic strips, sequentially building the frames of a surround-around film.

I personally believe we shouldn’t underestimate our sense of taste  and smell, two of the most evocative senses. They can bypass logic and trigger the deepest of associations, longings and memories, bringing any piece of writing to life. For me, fragrance, like music, can connect straight to the soul.

Not the senses I have but what I do with them is my kingdom. ~ Helen Keller

How can you discover what your sensory preferences are?

Look at three of your previous posts or pieces of writing. Print them off. Get a selection of highlighter pens. Look out for evidence of visual, aural, kinaesthetic, gustatory (taste) or olfactory (smell) preferences and descriptions and highlight each in a different colour. For example one person may say “I see what you mean. This piece has clarity.” Someone else may say “I hear what you’re saying but it doesn’t ring true for me.” Some people find a concept obscure where others may think it sounds crazy or something just doesn’t fit.

What is your lead representational system? Does it show up in your writing?  Try exploring your ‘weaker’ senses.

If you have a distinctive leading preference, try translating the thought into another representational system. For example, ‘as comforting as the site of my own front door’ could become ‘as comforting as a hot chocolate’ or ‘the sound of a mother’s voice’. It’ll help you empathise with how other people process the world. In western Europe and North America, there is less preference for gustatory and olfactory expression than in other parts of the world. I was much more comfortable talking with wild abandon about food and fragrance experiences in Greece than I am in Scotland.

Sensual accuity makes for good writing; mixing it up makes for vibrant creativity. In my coaching, I also learned through neuro linguistic programming that people can jar and clash if they are completely unaware that other people process information differently. Parents sometimes forget how much childlike wonder and innocent vivacity comes from children’s sensual experience and processing of the world; adults seem to be constantly busy trying to fill their heads with information and logical concepts – disconnecting them gradually from the most basic and beautiful pleasures of life.

How can you use the senses to improve your writing, your coaching, your parenting and your life?

Simple. Experiment with your senses. After you read this, go and have a snack and really savour it. The colours, taste, aroma and sound of it and the way it feels in your hand and in your mouth.

However, while the two aspects of the sense of smell — memory and desire— are past-and-future-tense prompts, the soul of scent is only truly discovered when we delight in its myriad pleasures every day. Scent is at its heady best, like life, in the present moment. ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

Deliberately explore those senses you underuse. Spend the whole day today being aware of how you process the world. You’ll find yourself suddenly, gratefully in tune with details and a sense of wonder if you deliberately feel, smell, taste, listen to and see the world differently.

Disconnect from your computer and your head for a while. Luxuriate in your senses and try and recreate the experiences in your writing.

If you’re a coach or business person, become very, very aware of how your client processes language. It’s no coincidence that advertising presentations, hypnosis, fairy  tales and trance inductions all use a combination of sensual descriptions and representational systems to make you imagine, see, hear, smell, taste and feel. You’ll connect with more people if you cover all your bases.

I’m obsessed with sensual writing and synaesthesia – poetry and lyrics are infused with it. I suspect I’ve just discovered this week’s theme! I won’t ask you what your favourite aromas are; that’ll keep for later…if they’re rising to your mind as you read, jot them down for later!…

But today, I’d like you to think of one smell, scent, aroma, fragrance, only one, that sums up each of the seasons for you. If you had to evoke the memory of a season in a haiku, poem or piece of writing, which one scented detail would capture it best and evoke it for your reader? (Winter for me is mulled wine – apple and cinnamon!)

What does your home smell like right now!?



  1. Sauteed garlic and coffee. Both are stimulating fragrances and equal comfort and routine. Start the day with coffee and get that stove fired up for something delicious to eat for dinner because the day will be gone and you do not want to be scratching your head hem and haw and say, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” (soups and sauces for anything. Let it simmer slowly all day and your home will smell like home sweet home and a scent that will be internalized by the family forever). Coffee and garlic are the two sure fire aromas that makes everyone in the household say mmmmm. My children will be the first to vote any of my pasta dishes as a first choice over eating out any where. I’ll embrace that until their taste buds change.

    Cindy´s last blog post..Mothers Who…

    1. Hi, Cindy
      Randi had a post over at her place about smells recently, too, and coffee and garlic were in my favourites. Spookily, we’ve just had fresh ravioli in a tomato and garlic sauce for tea and as I was washing up (I have floral washing up liquid that smells of white blossoms with a hint of dill) I was thinking how easy it is to let online work disconnect me from my love of fragrance – from reality, if I let it.

  2. I don’t think we can actually know what our home smells like. Because the smell is so intimately known to us that we don’t ‘know’ it.

    Maybe that also pertains to writing. Maybe we each have a personal style that’s recognizable only to others – not to ourselves.

    Talking of recognizing – I read your recent comment on Goodlife Zen, Janice – but I hadn’t taken note of who wrote it. I suddenly thought: “That’s lovely. Sounds like Janice!” There you go!

  3. Hi Janice,

    I often found that people attach different meanings to words. For example my definition for the word “later” most likely is different than it is for my husband. So I loved how you suggested that we take into consideration how others may interpret what we say and/or do. I think we unconsciously believe others can read our minds and our intentions which is unfortunately is not always the case.

    As for what my house smells lilke at this moment is would be nachos! 🙂

    Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog post..India – The Jewel In The Crown

  4. @ Mary,
    I know what you mean about the overall smell of our homes becoming ‘invisible’ when we’re in them – I always notice ours, as if for the first time, when we come back from holidays – but my footballing boy’s room definitely has its own signature scent at the moment! And there are ripe strawberries right next to me now as I write. Mmmm.

    I notice writing styles, too. I was reading a post over at Sean and Dave’s today but it didn’t feel like either of theirs; that’s when I noticed it was a guest post.
    When I do professional translations, I have to recognise underlying patterns and structures, in the grammar and deep discourse level as well as tone and vocabulary, in order to capture as much of the writer’s essence as possible and leave mine out. Luckily, I don’t do that when I’m reading for pleasure unless a writer has an annoying habit that starts to niggle at me.

    It was a powerful speech you highlighted over at your site today. Oratory has a beauty and poetry of its own which is strengthened when the speaker is passionate about their subject and knows how they hope to inspire and affect their listeners. I’d just published this piece, so his effortless harnessing of all the senses really struck me. What you said about recognising my style made me smile. In this comments box are people who bring out the real me because all three of you write and work with spirit, heart and presence. It gives your readers ‘permission’ to respond in kind.

    I’ve never had nachos but the first time I do, I’ll think of you!

    My husband and I were brought up in different countries so I’ve noticed that we relate to the colours and tones of words differently. When he first met my dad and mum, he couldn’t understand a word but I think it heightened the connection between them; they tried harder in other ways. But I completely and utterly agree with you about the minefield that is assuming that other people attach the same meaning to words. At its most obvious, living in different countries where people spoke English with ‘false friends’ – words they’d assume would be simple word for word translations – made me aware of just how many painful misunderstandings are rooted in language.

    My husband and I are so in tune, it’s kind of shocking how often we’re disappointed because we expect each other to be psychic mind readers! I have the opposite problem, too; my coaching mentor once suggested that one reason I talk too much is because the teacher – or the child – in me is anxious to make sure that people understand me, so I repeat the same thing in a variety of ways.

    @Cindy, Mary and Nadia,
    Thank you all for comments that always get me thinking way beyond my own posts!

  5. This is an interesting idea! Why wouldn’t I have thought of it? Because my home no longer has the day-long smells of cooking and cleaning that it used to. That’s because of some drastic changes in my home life, empty nest and being alone most of the time. I don’t have the arousal of scent to tell me I want to eat, just that it’s time to eat. No wonder I’ve lost my appetite.

    I wonder what other appetites I have cut out? I know touch is gone too. I can’t afford my chiro and massage I love.

    I did read an article the other day that said scents can enhance your day at work so I put on some tropical scent lotion before going to my studio. Funny, I don’t remember if it worked!

    Thanks, I’ll take your advice and see if the loss of scent and touch shows in my writing.

    Diana Maus´s last blog post..Dreaming of an unbelievable discount? Click here…

  6. Hi Diana,
    I do know that if I’m depressed, my writing becomes ‘blander’, if that makes sense, and that I crave real flowers (remember my hyacinth post?) and floral cleaning products, in an attempt to make even the trudgiest of jobs less daunting. Tempting food doesn’t even do it for me. When I’m ill or down, I crave mashed potato and bland stodgy comfort food. I have to re-awaken my sense of smell first.

    I wrote a guest post about Greece which will be appearing over at Chania Girl’s site in a few weeks. I was stunned at the scent memories it unleashed; I usually keep a lot of my Greek memories locked up in the same deep dark place as the songs I can no longer listen to. That, of course, is dangerous and daft. All it takes is a snippet of music, a waft of fragrance or a writing prompt to unlock them. I’ve found what works best is to nurture myself with daily glories like Cindy was talking about above, even if I’m alone while the kids are at school.

    I also make sure that scent plays a role in my daily rituals, either in soap or perfume. And they don’t always have to be expensive; I sniff everything before I buy and the most expensive products are not always the best.

    Another form of cheap aromatherapy I use is to visit a garden, a woodyard, a coffee shop or a bakery.

    Please let us know what you discover when you check out the imagery etc in your recent writing.

  7. Mine is summer. Out in the fields on the farm growing up. I see color, red tomatoes, green watermelons and yellow squash. I hear bees buzzing, irrigation watering, and laughter as my sisters and I worked. My feet are dirty but joyful in the warm sand from the summer sun. My jean cut offs are dirty as I wipe my hands on them before eating the heart out of melon we dropped on the ground and cracked open.
    I don’t think I followed directions but I got carried away. A well thought out and written article!

    Tess The Bold Life´s last blog post..Magic Monday with Keith Harrell

  8. What directions?! – I just toss out suggestions and questions and hope – long -for answers like the ones I’ve had today and yesterday!

    What a breathtakingly vivid, powerful piece of writing. I could feel the juice from that melon dripping down my chin in the sun! Please get carried away as often as you like!! Getting glimpses of people’s lives like this infuses my own with colour and warmth, sounds and scents from foreign places. It’s one of the things I adore about the internet. I got a look at life from Cindy’s upstairs window over at Sean’s blog today and a nacho recipe from Nadia. Life’s good.

  9. I love this question, Janice. I don’t know how to answer what “home” smells like for me right now, but I can tell you what I noticed when I disembarked from the plane at 11:00pm my first night stateside. I smelled sweetness, tobacco, cut grass, and dew. It was completely unlike what I had become accustomed to in Crete, and it was heady–intoxicating! So sweet and fragrant! I kept taking it in in great gulps.

    Crete’s smell is dry, sandy, salty and a bit acidic. You smell heat and sunlight, even in winter.

    Chania Girl´s last blog post..Putting Humpty Together Again: Mending the Cracked Pot

  10. I always remember Crete like that too, and always has a hint of concrete dust and diesel somewhere, too – from the building that goes on all year and the central heating fumes in winter, or cars driving along the coast in summer, faintly on a breeze somewhere.

    What a beautiful description of your US ‘homecoming’! Thank you for inspiring us with it. It reminded me of when I came back to Scotland from Greece and it always smelled of damp, green air and forests.

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