Category Archives: sensory detail

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech

For kids with sensory integration issues, choose picture books with pared down shapes, colors, focus

If your child resists using certain picture books to retell a story, it could be the pictures themselves that discourage writing.

3rd grader writing an essay.

Choose picture books with plain or no background, solid colors, one or two characters and a single, focused idea in each drawing

Picture books with detailed backgrounds or with copious patterns can turn off children with sensory integration issues.  Such children have difficulty focusing if there is too much pattern, noise, motion, or texture in any experience.  They prefer plain painted walls and plain bedspreads, not papered walls and patterned bedding; low, instrumental music by a single instrument, not loud music or music with lyrics; sitting or standing still, not rocking or dancing; and loose knit clothing, not clothes with tags or clothes that are tight-fitting.

When you choose books for children who show sensory integration issues, search for picture books with these characteristics:

  • Pictures with no backgrounds, or just the hint of background—a wash of green to represent grass and trees, for example, or one or two birds in the sky, not a whole flock.
  • Characters dressed in solid colors without shading or patterns in their clothes. If you have seen Pippa the Pig books or cartoons, with their simplistic images, that is the kind you want to show your child.
  • Pictures using flat shapes and limited colors, the kind that children themselves produce. (Think of the way Peanuts cartoon characters are presented—Charlie Brown with his round head and Lucy with her dress of a single color.)
  • Pictures focusing on one or two characters, not groups. Look for pared down, minimalist images which have removed everything but the essential elements.

When you look for picture books for children with sensory integration issues to write about, search for picture books with the features just mentioned.  Some wordless picture books offer these kinds of pictures, but not all do.

Finding such books in your library or book store is not easy.  A section labeled “simplistic art” doesn’t exist.  I have had to scour shelves to find what I am looking for.  But the search is worth it to entice a reluctant child writer.

Next blog:  A list of books with the kind of art which appeals to children with sensory integration issues.

How to write well, according to Swain

If you could boil down how to write well into just a few ideas, what would they be?

How about

  • Choose vivid, specific words, words that excite our senses. Avoid generalities by using concrete words that create pictures in the readers’ minds. If you write about groups of people, focus on an individual.
  • Choose active verbs, verbs that put action into those vivid pictures. Avoid the verb “to be.” Use the simple past tense whenever you can, not past progressive or the perfect tenses.
  • Rarely use adverbs. Instead, through action show what the adverb suggests.  If you must use an adverb, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence for the most impact.
  • Vary your sentence structures. Use long sentences, short sentences; simple, compound and complex sentences; sentences that start with prepositional phrases, dependent clauses and gerunds; and sentences that aren’t sentences at all.
  • Don’t try to cram too much information into a single sentence.
  • If you repeat words, repeat enough times and close enough together so those words create impact.
  • Concise is better than verbose.
  • And most important of all, write clearly. The reader should “get it” the first read.

These suggestions come from a single chapter in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, 1965.