C. Dow Tate
Hillcrest High School
Dallas, Texas

The Ultimate Goal
To use all five senses to gather detail for a feature story.


  • To demonstrate how to observe using all five senses to capture the details needed to describe and bring to life a scene. People observe by smelling, tasting, touching and hearing as well as by seeing scenes, and so should writers.
  • To develop the student’s sense of what precise detail means. Was the chameleon “green” or “chartreuse”? Was the “moving air”, the “wind”, a “breeze” or a “draft”?
  • To develop a sense of what makes details relevant. Students must learn to choose details that add to the overall focus of the story. For example, the use of cashmere sweater would be good detail use if the story is about a teacher who won the lottery but still teaches. The cashmere sweater helps to show how the teacher’s life changed. The detail become needless if the story is about the heater in the school breaking down.

Ways to teach them.

  • Describing grocery items. Go to the grocery store and find cool stuff to eat or look at or smell. Come up with about six items and then label them and pass them around the room. The kiwano is a good item; it’s a cross between a kiwi and a mango. The outside is hard and kind of yellow, but the second the knife cuts through the skin, fluorescent green oozes out. Let students describe away. Post a couple of recorders at the blackboard to catch all the words the class uses, so that after all the items have been consumed or demolished, the class can discuss the list and circle the more precise and relevant words.
  • Blind boxes. Station boxes around the room, each containing an item students can smell, taste, touch or hear but can not see. Ask students to move silently from one station to another, follow the directions written at the box and list nouns, verbs and adjectives that describe what they smell, taste, touch or hear. The words in their lists should not identify or name the object. Their words and phrases should be chosen to describe the object so the reader can experience it. Students might be grouped, assigned a box and asked to combine their lists and write a descriptive sentence or two on the blackboard for class discussion.
  • Commercial exercise. Record three or four storytelling commercials popular with students and show them to the class. Have the students take notes on all the relevant details that each commercial uses to make a point. Discuss how these details appeal to the senses.
  • Childhood photos. Have students write an observation lead from an action childhood photo he or she has at home. Allow them to read the observations to the class and show the photo; then have the class respond. Structure the class response: Ask students to acknowledge vivid words, phrases and imagery. Ask them how the imagery is accurate, precise and relevant. (Have on hand a small collection of magazine and newspaper photos of common childhood experiences in case there is a student who believes he or she does not have a photo to show.)

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