Rainbow Strategy for Senses

To check that I’m “showing, not telling”, that I’m using all the senses to engage my readers, I give my manuscript the seven-color rainbow test.

Using fine-tip markers or highlighters, I assign a color to each sense category: red for sight, green for sound, a different shade of green for dialogue (because it’s a type of sound), blue for smell, purple for taste, orange for touch (external body), and pink for emotions/kinesthesia (internal feelings). I record my choices on an index card for easy reference. Then I read a passage from my manuscript, underlining (or highlighting) with the appropriate color any word or phrase that evokes a sense in me.  The colors tell me if I’m overusing one sense or not using another.  I revise with the goal of using all senses in a more balanced way.

The sights add up quickly so you may prefer to mark only the objects and actions that the character is seeing, or their first occurrence, or as I usually do, the main noun and/or verb in each new mental picture I get. I recognize this as an art, not a science, and never waste time wondering if I’ve categorized a word or phrase “incorrectly”.  Below is the exact transcription of the first time I used this technique.

First Draft

The laundry mat was hot. Molly pulled off her jacket, put the wet clothes in the dryer, and tried to look sophisticated as she pulled the quarters from the pocket they shared with her candy bar. The coins were sticky but they started the machine. She hoped Jim wasn’t watching every move she made and she decided to dump the candy bar into the trash before, if, he came over and talked with her. But it wasn’t in her pocket. “I’m doomed,” she said as she watched the candy bar flip and turn, flip and turn with the clothes.


It was difficult to catch a breath in the laundry mat with washers and dryers blowing hot air from one side of the room and three closed windows acting like magnifying glass making heat on the other. Molly fingered the quarter in the jacket pocket it shared with her caramel bar and tried to look sophisticated as she filled the rotund dryer. The ache in her arms from lifting the clothes, heavy with moisture, was more pleasant than having Jim see her here, dressed in her faded sundress, knowing now she didn’t own a dryer of her own. What if he walks over just when my unmentionables are tossing about? She covered her nose until the whiff of bleach blew past her. What if he sees the size of my jeans? She poked the coins into the narrow slot. The machine swallowed them, clicked itself to lock, and while grinding and rattling, lifted the clothes up, around and down like clock hands sweeping the hours. I’ll just die if he finds that candy bar on me. I’ve got to pitch it in the trash before–if–he comes over over to talk. She scratched the lining of her jacket. Her eyes darted in every direction while a gasp, the kind that says you’d trade anything to relive the last two minutes of your life, escaped her lips. As JIm approached her stomach churned like the dryer that was lifting her clothes up, around, and down, streaking her clothes with melted caramel.candy bar.

In the revision, the occurrences of sensory descriptions rose from 16 to 42 and the number of categories from 4 to all 7. Note how the writing was enriched. The character became more defined (she’s modest; she’s concerned about her weight/jean size), the setting clearer (windows, heat, big machines, trash cans), and the plot thickened (did she lie to him about owning a washer and dryer?) I may not keep all the revisions, but my imagination was much more engaged in the revision.

Look for the rainbow in your current project. is there color variation? A dominance of one color? A color you never used? Is the color of dialogue interspersed among the colors of other descriptions?

Compare the rainbows of several of your manuscripts. Their colors will either pinpoint senses your routinely neglect–or overuse–or will confirm a beautiful mixture of sensory input in your style. Either way, you’ll be more sense-ably aware of your writing and sparked up for more sense-sational exploration.


What do you think?