How to Make Your Writing Smell Better

Fog settled over the village and I thought the houses looked like they were huddling together in the cold.

One house stood apart from the others, a tilting mess with off-colored smoke pouring out of the chimney. A sign with the word Alchem- etched in fading white letters hung over the front door.

The house seemed to shudder as I approached. Before I could knock, the door slammed open, and a horse-sized plume of smoke belched from inside. The alchemist stumbled out of the house, coughing and clapping his beard between both hands to put out the last of the flames.

“Ah, you must be my three o’clock.” The alchemist hacked something from his throat, apologized, and stuck an ashy hand out to greet me, “P.S. Hoffman, correct?”

“Thank you for meeting me on such short notice.”

“Not to worry, not to worry. I know just the thing to sort out your problem. Now, were you the one with the fissures? No, that was someone else, you were…” He scratched at the blackened tips of his beard, frowning.

I cupped a hand around my mouth, whispering, “I’m here about the -”

OH YES. YOU’RE THE WRITER WITH THE BORING STORIES!” The alchemist shouted, stamping his foot triumphantly. The house shuddered again.

“Don’t be shy now, come in, I have just the thing for you.”

He pulled on my sleeve, and dragged me into the house. The floors and walls were littered with old tomes, and strange instruments, and exotic animals, stuffed into bottles or mounted on the walls.

He led me to the stairs, clomping  down each step as he spoke, “Now, you see, most writers only know how to write two or three of the seven senses.”

Seven senses? I wondered, but he spoke too quickly for me to ask questions. I heard something in the cellar rattling and hissing, like a pot about to boil over.

“I blame the picture-shows. Writers these days are obsessed with how things sound, or look. But readers need to know how something smells, or feels, or tastes.”

“What do you mean?”

In the cellar, high windows let the sun in at intervals, illuminating hundreds of half-filled bottles and flasks and tubes. He pulled a bottle off of a shelf, popped off the cork, and handed it to me.

“What can you tell me about this beaker, just from looking at it?”

“It’s empty.”


I scratched my head, still confused.

“Just from looking at it, all you can say is it’s empty. But when you touch it,” he pushed it to me, forcing me to grab it with both hands, “What do you feel?”

“It’s scratched all along the bottom. And it’s warm. Really warm.”

“So you know it’s old, or well-used, and there might be something in it, something you can’t see. If you smell it, carefulnot too much, what does it smell like?”

Warily, I sniffed, “It smells sweet.”

He flapped his hands at me to continue.

“Like… berries. Strawberries.” I sniffed again,  and wrinkled my nose, “Eugh, now it smells like rotten strawberries. Oh, that is awful.”

He cackled, and took the bottle back from my hand, “That’s a little concoction I’ve been working on. It’s a gas that, when mixed with wine, makes the imbiber find people more attractive.”

“Like a love potion?”

He shrugged, “Not so much love, no. Although young people often confuse it with love.”

“Why did you make me smell it?”

“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’? Showing isn’t just about what you can see. It’s about giving your reader a sense of the world. You don’t want to tell your reader what the flowers look like – you want your reader to smell the flowers. You want them to know that they rustle in the breeze, that they’re softer than silk, that they taste like dirt.”

He scooped something out of a drawer, a dry powder with red seeds in it, “Open your hand.”

He dumped it onto my palm.

“It tingles! It’s like tiny bubbles are popping on my skin.”

I brought it up to my nose, and he stopped me, “Don’t. One sniff of that would kill you.”


“To prove a point. Now, anytime you write about that bubbling feeling, it will remind your reader of this poison. You can use the sense of smell, or touch, or taste, not only to flesh out your story’s setting, but also to color it.

“How do you mean?” I asked as he brushed the powder off of my hand into the drawer.

“When something smells rancid, you know that the character isn’t pleased with his surroundings. A sense of smell can add tone, or significance to any setting, and even actions. You can even tell a character is in love by how fondly they remember someone’s scent.”

He dunked a hand into a jar filled with murky water. Suspicious chunks swirled in the dirt-colored soup. He pulled out a slimy, fleshy lump, dotted with four black eyes.

Remember, you can’t convey a sense of smell with pictures or music, only with writing. That is one of the strengths of words. Here, smell this,” he offered the lump to me. His eyes were wide, and he fought to hide his grin, like a child with a secret.

I sniffed it. My esophagus squeezed, as if it was trying to push a ball out of my throat. The lump smelled like old man, old shoes, and old meat all at the same time. I retched.

The alchemist wouldn’t stop laughing.


Take a deep breath. What does your writing place smell like? The next time you enter a room, think about what it smells like. Could your writing smell stronger?

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37 thoughts on “How to Make Your Writing Smell Better

  1. Ocularcentrism is a problem in architecture as well, and probably most creative fields. Us sighted folk are just so reliant on that single sense to understand our world. Architects tend to focus on visual beauty and coherence to the detriment of texture, acoustics, smell, and taste (for the few of us who lick buildings. The famous Chicago Bean may look cool, but it tastes of sharp chemicals). Not to say the other senses are always neglected, but they certainly take a back seat. We use all our senses to navigate and appreciate our environment; the designers of that environment ought to take them into account.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for indulging us with such an academic perspective, Mr. Petterson.

      Are the textures of architects mostly at the whims of practical building materials? And how difficult would it be to factor sound into architecture? I know of quite a few buildings with absurdly angelic acoustics, but most of them are theaters, lecture halls, or churches, or something like that.


      1. When it comes to materials (in the U.S., at least), your choices pretty much steel, glass, concrete, wood, and masonry, but so much textural variation is possible within those categories. You can change the textural quality of a given material through preparation, finishing, ornamentation, perforation, sanding, scoring. Texturally attentive buildings make me want to touch them; they draw me in (walking through downtown St Louis during my time there, I would cross the street just to run my hand along the Wainwright building’s terracotta ornamentation: In most cases, however, a building’s texture is probably an incidental consequence of materials chosen for looks or efficiency.

        Sound is interesting because there are many precedents of designing for sound in spaces like you mentioned — churches, theaters, lecture halls (although definitely not all, or even most, lecture halls) — but when sound is not THE design consideration it frequently ceases to be a consideration at all. What if city infrastructure mitigated traffic noise? Or the standard middle school droptile ceiling could amplify the teacher’s voice rather than muffling everything?

        Another interesting challenge to consider is designing to the blind, who rely on their other senses to navigate. Differences in how the built environment carries and reflects sound could vastly alter their experience of the city. A correllary is “deafspace” (a term I recently became acquainted with), which is space optimized to people who can’t hear. Then a whole new set of issues appears that us hearing folk have never even considered. If you’re curious, you can read more about deafspace here:

        Here’s a video of contemporary genius David Byrne talking about sound and architecture:

        I didn’t mean for this to be so long, but this is how I get my jollies.


        1. “What if… the standard middle school droptile ceiling could amplify the teacher’s voice rather than muffling everything?” – It would cost more!

          Isn’t this the downfall of most art? It is ‘unnecessary’ and won’t really bring more people in if it feels interesting to touch. Most people I know don’t think about how good a building feels, you know?

          Jollies were shared all around, thank you for the lengthy comment. I’m digging through these links now.


  2. Can I say I love this, I hate this? ::Mopes:: Now I want to go back and rewrite my entire project from word one, just to ensure I include all five senses. That would NOT be a good idea at this point.

    I love it, because it is such a wonderful reminder of things to keep in mind going forward, and for any shorts I slash out. I hate it because of the paragraph above. I just don’t have time to go back through almost 200k words of writing and add to them. ::Flops down, frowning::

    Quandaries, quandaries. Thanks for posting this, it is extremely thought provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are most welcome!

      Believe me when I say this: I UNDERSTAND YOUR PAIN.

      All I can suggest is maybe when you go through your edits, see if you can’t (subtly) shove a good, strong scent where it would help the tone. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ::Laughs:: Book 1 is done. I’m still playing with it on my end, but I don’t expect to shove another update out. Or if I do, the poor thing is going to double in length.

        Book 2 is the one I’m on right now. And, this is the one most likely to profit from your words of wisdom. Along with books 3, 4, and 5 of this series, and anything else that comes after.

        ::Shakes fist at you and laughs:: I seem to find the wonderful pearls a month or two late, but I know they are never wasted. There is always more to come that will benefit. After all, the first book or two of any author have the most mistakes, and after that the quality is supposed to improve, right?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. ::Cowers in fear:: Please don’t hit me! I’ll try to get more advice posts out soon!

          You know you’ve improved when you go back to something you wrote a year or so ago, and you want to slap your past self. Sometimes I can’t believe how awful my writing was before, but after a book or two, how can you not improve?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Totally, and completely agreed. And, you are safe, I growl, but I have yet to bite.

            Actually, I am re-reading book 1 and assembling a series of posts discussing it chapter by chapter. If I make enough changes, I might actually put out an update – the sales numbers are still small enough I can get away with a major change without making someone furious. ::Grins:: (Thank you slow starts to sales! And, even bigger thank you for being an unknown!)

            As for what I am learning, I keep trying bits and pieces on for size in the current book to see how they fit. After all, aren’t the first books supposed to be the ones where you try something and fall on your nose?

            Liked by 1 person

  3. The alchemist has some great advice, but I wouldn’t say this story was boring at all! I love playing around with the different sense; things like taste and scent outside of food is far too often ignored, although, honestly, I don’t think many people would care to know that when they enter my living room and take a deep breath, they’re most likely to get a nose full of cat dander and a mouth full of fur.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “taste and scent outside of food” – Exactly! I love food descriptions as much as the next reader, but food isn’t the only thing we can taste.

      I understand that stray pet hair feeling all too well. At least you have a succinct way to describe your living room, right?


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