75 Words to Describe Smells

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One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to engage with all five primary senses in a scene. It’s easy for most of us to describe sight and sound, as our characters move through the space we imagine in our minds and speak to others, listen to the radio or an argument in the next room or whatever.

Touch can be a step up in difficulty, but most of us manage this well: our characters linger over the feel of a leather-bound book or the softness of a lover’s skin.

Taste, well…unless the scene involves eating, that one is tough, and when it does, it’s usually easy. Rich wine or decadent chocolate, creamy peanut butter, and so on–we’ve got our own taste buds as easy reference for that.

But how often, as a reader, do you read about smells? How often, as a writer, have you tried to describe them?

I won’t claim to be an expert by any means–I was always conscious that decaying bodies stink when I was writing my What We Need series, but beyond that, I can only recall a few instances where I incorporated other smells into my writing.

To that end, I offer this list of adjectives to describe a wide range of smells, many of which (but certainly not all) would also be appropriate to use for tastes, as the two senses are closely related.

acidic fetid peppery
acrid fishy piney
ammoniacal floral piquant
animal fresh pungent
antiseptic fruity putrid
appetizing funky rancid
ashy gamy rank
astringent grassy resinous
balmy greasy rotten
bitter herbaceous salty
brackish green savory
briny irritating smoky
burnt medicinal soapy
camphoraceous metallic sour
chalky milky spicy
chemical minty spoiled
citrusy moldy stagnant
cloying musky stale
coppery musty stuffy
damp nauseating sulfurous
dank noisome sweaty
delicate noxious sweet
dusty odious tangy
earthy oily woodsy
fecal overpowering vile
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