Awkward Week: Five Senses

As a newspaper editor, I’m sometimes asked to visit classrooms from elementary school to college and talk about what I do, answer questions about my job and industry, and critique student newspapers.

On one community college visit, I had received a copy of the campus paper in advance and had gone over it with a red pen. One story in particular caught my eye: an opinion piece about eucalyptus trees. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but there wasn’t much of an opinion to it I could see, unless the opinion was, “I believe we shouldn’t forget that eucalyptus trees exist.” It would have made a better feature story, but that could have been the editor’s decision.

During my critique in front of the class, I touched on the cover stories, and the overall use of photography, and a little of this, a little of that. When I got to the tree story, I singled the student out and noted that if an opinion piece was going to set forth a vague opinion, it should at least have a great hook—something to draw readers in.

I’m a strong proponent of writing smell into a story (though I now realize I haven’t done that much here in the Shallows), so I emphasized the opportunity missed in not capitalizing on the pungent, medicinal, unmistakable eucalyptus scent.

“It’s so strong and instantly recognizable,” I said. “And when it rains, they smell like cat pee.”

For some reason, I spent several minutes on this, giving it more time than I did other articles. “It’s so important to write about smell,” I said. “It’s so visceral; it’s so universal.” When I finished my mini-lesson, the author said simply, “I have no sense of smell.”

I thought, for a brief moment, that she was messing with me, but the rest of the class nodded solemnly. I looked at the instructor—also nodding.

I had spent five or six minutes essentially haranguing this young writer for not doing something she couldn’t actually have done. I mean, I guess she could still have written about smell without herself being able to smell, but still …


4 thoughts on “Awkward Week: Five Senses

  1. And there’s your hook… she couldn’t smell that pungent, unmistakable scent (or the cat pee). She could have written that in.

    Don’t beat yourself up over information you didn’t have 🙂

  2. Mrs. Shallows

    You still taught a lesson that probably no student in that room will ever forget. I bet the next time that student had to write about a sensory experience she asked someone what it smelled like. I’m also certain those future journalists learned an even more important lesson about making assumptions! Sorry it had to be an object lesson at your expense.

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