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 …