Descriptive Writing: Words to Describe Smells

Sensory Writing: The Sense of Smell

Enhance your descriptive writing with the power of smell. Smell-related words evoke remembrance of those smells, and those remembrances are powerful and laden with emotion.

The sense of smell is our most primitive sense, the one most closely related to emotions — and hence, very valuable to the writer.


The Power of Smell

Why is the sense of smell so emotionally rousing? To quote from Nature’s Aphrodisiacs  (Crossing Press, 1998):

Of the five senses, only the sense of smell bypasses the cerebral cortex—the conscious “thinking” part of our brain. Smell receptors in the nose are directly wired to the limbic center, the part of the brain that controls our sex drive, emotions, and sensual memories. Thus a smell can arouse us, trigger an emotion, or evoke a memory, and our conscious mind cannot control our response.

 For example, we may get a whiff of sandalwood, a scent always worn by someone we dislike. Instantly—against our will—we are reminded of him/her. And the memory brings with it strong emotions associated with that person. Suddenly we feel angry, annoyed, or depressed without knowing why. We take an immediate, unexplainable dislike to the person who innocently wears the offending fragrance. That odor is forever connected with negative emotions in our limbic brain.

 Words to Evoke Smell Memories

Can words evoke smell memories.? Absolutely. And can those smell memories instantly evoke powerful emotions in our primal brains – our limbic centers? Absolutely.

As writers, how can we make use of “smell words” to add emotional impact to our writing?  Unfortunately, our language is noticeably deficient in such words. We do have synonyms for the word smell, such as odor, aroma, perfume, scent. There are many other words for smell, among them essence, sweetness, musk, breath, whiff, and taint.

Many adjectives are useful in describing odors. If you’re imaginative, those adjectives call up odors to which they apply. For example: acrid, pungent, earthy, sour, musty, rancid.

 WORD SAVVY Tip Sheet for “Smell Words”

Go to the BONUS page of this website for the WORD SAVVY TIP SHEET:Words to Describe Smells  – a handy word list to help you include the powerful sense of smell in your arsenal of descriptive writing tools.

You will find the link to the BLOG page in the right-hand column as well as directly under the header illustration at the top of the page.


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