Activity: Describe ~ Free Form

One of the marks of a good writer is the ability to paint a picture in the reader’s mind of what is happening. Instead of simply telling what happened, by describing what happened writing comes alive. To focus on this skill, have your student use this free sensory detail form to capture words and phrases that are used to describe.

If Johnny sweated through the exercise, don’t tell me “Johnny sweated through the exercise.” Show me by painting the picture in my head with words. For example, “beads of sweat rolled into Johnny’s eyes as he labored to lift the weights above the floor.”

16 Tips: Building a Better Writer

Let’s use a few examples to get started:

The lady screamed.

How do I know? What do I see? What do I hear? Do I feel anything?

Rewrite: An ear-piercing screech rent the air as a set of well-manicured fingernails cut into the flesh of my arm. [I’m guessing she’s upset.]

She was scared.

After the event above, we can make that assumption. But how do I know? What do I see? What do I hear? Do I smell anything?

Rewrite: Her eyes were fixed on the acrid smoke funneling under the door while sirens began to blare and I removed her ice-cold hand.

The idea of a sensory detail form is to keep track of words or phrases that “show instead of tell” by writing the sense they appeal to in the appropriate column.

Again, let’s use an example:

On that first morning when the sky was blue again Mary wakened very early. The sun was pouring in slanting rays through the blinds and there was something so joyous in the sight of it that she jumped out of bed and ran to the window. She drew up the blinds and opened the window itself and a great waft of fresh, scented air blew in upon her. The moor was blue and the whole world looked as if something Magic had happened to it. There were tender little fluting sounds here and there and everywhere, as if scores of birds were beginning to tune up for a concert. Mary put her hand out of the window and held it in the sun.

The Secret Garden

Let’s make a list of words or phrases that contain sensory detail:


Slanting rays of sun

blue moor


fresh, scented air


tender little fluting sounds

scores of birds tuning up for a concert


(none mentioned)


warm sun on hands

The author could have just said, “It was sunny when Mary woke up.” But you can see how much more appealing the descriptive writing is!

How about one more example:

It was one January morning, very early—a pinching, frosty morning—the cove all grey with hoar-frost, the ripple lapping softly on the stones, the sun still low and only touching the hilltops and shining far to seaward.

Treasure Island

grey with hoar-frost

sun low only touching the hilltops and shining far to seaward


(none mentioned)


ripple lapping softly on stones


(none mentioned)


pinching frost

Simply by focusing on sensory detail we can improve our writing. Have your student make a chart like the one above in a notebook to record. Or use our very simple, free form below.

Free Form
  • Have your student mark down the sensory details he comes across in his reading one day. (Mark the place they were found for future reference.)
  • For the next day’s assignment, have him rewrite the passages removing those sensory details. [There is no better way to appreciate bad writing!]
  • The following day, have him take one or two of the examples and rewrite using different sensory details to create a different scene or atmosphere.
  • Finally, start fresh. Provide a prompt or have him provide the prompt — a simple sentence formed of basically subject/verb. Now using sensory details, flesh the sentence out. If you get stuck, try one of the following:
    • It was hot.
    • The boy was cold.
    • The meal tasted good.
    • The sun was up.
    • Geese are loud.
    • Children played.

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