Writing Activity: Describe A Smell

Beginner writers are frequently told to make use of all senses when describing a setting. While this is a good place to start, keen readers will understand that there’s a time and a place to delve into the senses; some stories call for sensory lingering. Others don’t.

But for now, let’s have a go at describing smell.

I’ll call it: Smell is the most difficult sense to describe. Human language is bereft of words to describe how something smells. It’s either lovely or putrid (and everything in between), or it smells like something else (something we can actually see – since we are heavily visual creatures). Yep. This is the best we have.

If dogs could talk, I’m sure they’d have 50 words to describe the smell of snow, but humans outsourced our sense of smell to our canine companions millennia ago (well, that’s the theory), and we’ve lost much of what we once had. Ergo, when describing smells, we’re limited to value judgements and comparison:

  • What did her perfume smell like? Dunno, some kind of flower. (People who know their flowers may be able to name the flowers.
  • What does coffee smell like? Well, like coffee? Crushed coffee beans, I guess? Like a cafe. Like that cafe we visited in March, in that quaint little village…
  • What do wet towels smell like? Disgusting. Like dog, wet dog. Like an old man in a thick woollen jersey who has just stepped in from weeks outside in the rain…

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word ‘smell’, for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling.

The Wind In The Willows, Kenneth Grahame

We may lack specific vocabulary to describe smells, but great writers manage it anyway. Let’s use some examples and take a close look at how they do it.


Today you’ll be writing one or two paragraphs. Not a complete narrative, just a few sentences describing a smell.


I recommend mining your childhood for this one, or at least starting there. Try to come up with 10. Pay attention to the memory which bubbles up when you think of this smell. Where are you? Who else is there? How are you feeling? If your mind drifts, take note of that, too.

Here’s my list:

  1. Commercial Play-Doh versus the salty, home-made playdough made at home and at preschool
  2. The cloakroom on my first day of school (oranges and peanut butter)
  3. Primary school toilets, which I associate with cheap white bars of soap, which are always tiny and cracked, with mud in the cracks
  4. The inside of my mother’s guitar
  5. The smell of the liquor cabinet, with barely used bottles of liqueurs and spirits purchased Duty Free on the few occasions my parents could afford an overseas holiday
  6. Freshly cut grass. I’m sitting on the mat listening to the teacher read a story. Outside, the caretaker uses a tractor to mow the field. Summer is here. This is possibly the happiest I’ve ever been at school.
  7. My grandmother’s house, which was always very clean. Her sheets had a particular spicy scent which was always pleasant. Beyond ‘spicy’, I can’t tell you what the smell was.
  8. The smell of my teacher’s reddish-pink chisel-tip marker, which was the same smell as a scratch-and-sniff Pink Panther book I got for Christmas the same year. (I didn’t like the Pink Panther. Found him creepy. But even today, the theme tune recalls that scent, and I did really like the reddish-pink marker.)
  9. Bleach. Whenever I use bleach to clean, I’m reminded of early visits to the public indoor swimming pool for swimming lessons. Warm air, chlorine, and music piped through speakers. “Gimme The Night” by George Benson (1980) sounded especially eerie on those swimming pool speakers.
  10. Wet wool. In high school we were required to wear green woollen jerseys. Most students either rode bikes or walked to school, so whenever it rained, we arrived wet. Wool has a particular smell when it’s wet. I now associate this smell with New Zealand. (Here in 2020s Australia, school jerseys are called jumpers and they’re made of cotton or polar fleece, which is cheaper to buy, easier to care for and just as warm.)


We’re going for original and unusual here. So next, cross out the smells everyone typically associates with memories, and which have been described in literature many times before:

  • coffee
  • freshly mown grass
  • grandmother’s cookies

That said, even coffee, grass and cookies can be described in an original way. If you have something original in mind, keep them.

Jean Pierre Schüpbach, 1949 coffee smell


Go back to your list, which is perhaps a bit shorter than before. Pick one or two smells which you can’t remember anyone having described before. Now’s the time to add other scenes from your life which are also, in some way, connected to those smells.

It doesn’t matter how you make connections, because this paragraph is specific to your own unique experience of the world.

We’re ultimately looking for original connections which ring true, but which the reader had probably never linked before.


Here’s Maureen Johnson connecting a young adult visit to a nightclub with a childhood experience of Halloween:

The club was called Fez. They had to walk down a narrow stairwell lit by brass lamps with multicolored plastic panes to get to it. It smelled lightly of day-old beer, cigarettes, and plastic — like the inside of a mask from a Halloween costume.

from Girl At Sea, by Maureen Johnson describing a nightclub

First Johnson lists the smells of the items readers would expect to find in any nightclub. But she doesn’t stop there. These smells together remind the narrator of Halloween. What does Halloween smell like? The inside of a Halloween mask.

The effect: This nightclub is slightly scary, like Halloween was slightly scary when the narrator was little. When listing your connections, think: How was I feeling when I smelled this? When else was I feeling this way? Pick an item from each scenario. There you have it: An emotional connection.

This might be enough for you to write your paragraph describing a smell. If not, proceed to Step Four.


Chat GPT has its limitations, but here’s one thing it’s good for: Illuminating for us the most cliched version of any given creative piece.

Let’s return to Maureen Johnson’s description of the night-club. I ask Chat GPT:

Q: “What does a nightclub smell like?”

A: The scent of a nightclub can vary greatly depending on the location and the type of club. However, some common scents include alcohol, sweat, perfume or cologne, and cigarette smoke (if smoking is allowed). The smell of alcohol and sweat can be quite strong in crowded and lively clubs, while the scent of smoke and perfume may be more noticeable in smaller and more intimate settings. Additionally, some nightclubs may also have specific scents associated with the type of music or theme of the club, such as the smell of incense in a dance club or the smell of leather in a rock club.

Chat GPT, accessed 8 Feb 2023

You never know, AI may offer examples you hadn’t thought of. (I hadn’t thought of incense.) Your next job, as human, is to make that very human connection which Maureen Johnson has made in the example above: the connection to the Halloween mask.

Note: Use Chat GPT primarily to make sure you’ve gone beyond the obvious. (If Chat GPT can come up with it, you must go one further to achieve originality.)

Q: What does the inside of a guitar smell like?

A: The inside of a guitar typically has a faint woody scent, especially if the guitar is made of wood. This scent can be a combination of the smell of the wood used to construct the guitar and any varnishes, glues, or other materials used in its construction. If the guitar has been regularly played and exposed to moisture, it may also have a slightly musty odor. However, the overall scent is usually very subtle and may not be noticeable unless the guitar is closely sniffed.

Chat GPT, accessed 8 Feb 2023

Our mother must have had another life before we kids were born. The evidence: A guitar which she kept in the spare bedroom but never played. One of the strings had broken, not from enthusiastic use but simply from years passing by. Like everything else, strings deteriorate on their own. Mum found a man in town to replace the string, and now we kids could strum it gently and feel the sound was probably about right. But unlike our mother, we never learned to read music in school, so the books of squiggles and lines we also found in the wardrobe made no sense. And when we tried to hold the guitar as we’d seen people do on TV, the wires dug into our finger pads. Our small hands didn’t stretch across the strings.

Still, that guitar had its fascination. We held it, we strummed it, we peered inside the hole, where a miniature music hall might easily house tiny, invisible people. The inside of the guitar smelled of wood, varnish and glue — like the school hall on concert night, the year our almost-retired teacher decided he wouldn’t bother preparing a skit for us to perform in front of all the parents, but who also decided we’d have to expose our wholly unprepared selves on stage anyway.

The inside of my mother’s guitar, riffing on Maureen Johnson, and making sure to go beyond examples offered by Chat GPT



If you’re genuinely hungry, food smells especially delicious.

You could try the comedy angle. In Gilmore Girls the character Lane complains that her always-hungry flatmates had eaten her food-scented body lotion on potato chips.

I just asked my husband what he was cooking that smelled so good and he said he’d opened a can of cat food 🙁


Below, Alice Munro lists the food served by a dining establishment, but she makes the paragraph original by also describing the smell of the oilcloth mats, which places the story firmly in early 20th century:

The white tablecloths were changed every week and in the meantime were protected by oilcloth mats. In winter, the dining room smelled of these mats wiped by a kitchen rag, and of coal fumes from the furnace, and beef gravy and dried potatoes and onions a smell not unpleasant to anybody coming in hungry from the cold.

“Carried Away” by Alice Munro describing the dining room of the Commercial Hotel

This may appeal to you if you’re a fan of supernatural fantasy. A werewolf or a vampire would justifiably sense the world differently from regular humans. But how?



A person’s hormonal profile has something to with how we perceive scents. People with a female hormonal profile (mostly women, including trans women on hormone replacement therapies) have a keener sense of smell, which may impact your characterisation. Advice to ‘use all the senses’ and describe the smell of things as you’re writing fiction should not be applied too liberally. Some kinds of narrators are simply not good observers of subtleties. I’m reminded of the husband in The Pension Grillparzer by John Irving:

She [the wife] did not remind him that he was a heavy smoker who never smelled the soup simmering; the aroma of horses in the fresh air was too subtle for him.

The Pension Grillparzer by John Irving
  • rose
  • jasmine
  • lavender
  • vanilla
  • coconut
  • fruity scents such as peach and strawberry
  • powdery notes such as iris and violet

Women get to smell like real things (vanilla, lavender) but men have to smell like concepts. What is “cool sport rush”

  • woody and spicy scents e.g. sandalwood and cedar
  • fresh and clean scents e.g. ocean and pine
  • leather
  • tobacco
  • coffee
  • whiskey
  • notes of mint, basil and rosemary
This image can easily be interpreted through a misogynistic lens: That women are inherently unsuited to the field of science. Removing those lenses for a moment, here is a woman who finds a chemical unpleasant but is conducting her experiment anyway. (And let’s face it, some chemicals really are foul-smelling.) We’re unlikely to find an image of a man with this facial expression, which speaks to the cultural expectation that men are limited in their range of expressed emotions. Men are not allowed to show disgust. It would be unmanly. I would argue that today in STEM vocations, women are not permitted to show disgust either, for fear of being deemed unsuitable to the task.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American illustrator. Two Plumbers. 1951. This image amuses precisely because of the juxtaposition: Two working-class men, generally perceived as peak masculinity, enjoy the aroma of a woman’s perfume, caught in an unguarded moment of pleasure.
The Boy Who Smelled Everything, published in the August 1959 issue of Family Circle magazine. Illustration by Richard Hook. Here’s a boy young enough to be afforded the pleasure of aromas.


O, someone bring the smelling salts! Somebody who is an exchange student in Moscow posted this picture to Imgur. It’s bread-scented. You wash hair with it.

I was once an exchange student in Japan, where among other minor culture differences which add up to make a sum of ‘foreign’, I noticed that Japanese people and Westerners tend to find different smells appealing. American women in particular are notorious/famous among the Japanese for wearing too much perfume (though by ‘American’, most of the time they mean ‘white people’.) Cosmetics in Japan more likely to ‘smell like clean’ (if you can imagine that) rather than some highly potent chemically aroma smelling of some foreign, overpowering flower.

All of this illuminated to me how scent and our perception of scent is partly cultural. So why not bread scented shampoo? At first glance this seems very strange to me, but if I take off my cultural lenses, bread is no more strange than the smell currently emanating from me, which is probably part coconut.

Whereas the Japanese market demands softly scented products, Russia goes to the opposite extreme. Russians require their scents far stronger:

Smell, it seems, is cultural.  I already discovered that this is the case for taste.  For example, in America everything has more sugar–yogurt, juice, ice cream, cake, chocolate–than its equivalents elsewhere.  Apparently, in Russia products have more smell.  It is not Russian companies that are selling products with more smell.  International corporations like Kleenex, Dove et al, are producing scented items for a particular Russian market.  For example, I brought a bottle of Dove “Go Fresh” cucumber and green tea body wash from the States.  The other day I bought another Dove “Go Fresh” at my local market.  The same brand, same bottle (though the Russian version is smaller.  This is another difference: Americans like their products BIG.).  Totally different strength of smell.  The American version is a slight fake cucumber and green tea aroma.  The Russian version pierces your lungs to the point of choking.

Smelly Russia


Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why do flowers smell