Susan Midlarsky

author • consultant • tutor | inspiring excellence
NaNoWriMo Writing

Descriptive Writing Exercise


As National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) approaches, many people gear up for an enormous leap into creative writing. November has been one of my favorite months of the year for this reason, now for almost a decade, as my tenth year of participating in this program approaches.

One of the areas young (and other) writers struggle with is descriptive writing. Now that so many young people spend a huge proportion of their time in front of screens, I think the other senses get neglected, and a corresponding decrease in the ability to express sensation in words comes with that. For that or whatever other reason, I end up needing to do this exercise with each of my writing students at some point.

First the student and I go outside and sit somewhere comfortable, and we both close our eyes. Then we go through these questions:

  • What do you hear?
  • What do you smell?
  • What do you feel?
  • What do you taste? (inhaling a big breath)
  • Finally, opening our eyes again, What do you see?

For each of these steps, both of us describe our experiences and sensations. We might walk around a little when describing what we see, or pick up a dry leaf to feel it. It’s not a cut-and-dry series of steps, but rather a fluid experience that changes based on the student.

Next, we jot down what we experienced. Some students go straight into poetry or prose; others do better by writing a list of sensations, then later weaving them into a descriptive writing.

Every time I’ve done this, I’ve seen an improvement in the level of detail and description in the student’s writing. It also creates a concrete experience for the student to draw upon when they heard that they should “use all five senses” when describing a scene they are writing.

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