Write a brief, vivid observation about any object, people, place, or aspect of life here at John Jay or here in New York City. Think of your readers as other students here at the college. In this piece, try to make a point, though this point need not be stated explicitly, and to achieve two qualities that William Zinsser says are "at the heart of good nonfiction writing": "humanity and warmth." Read some Short Shorts in our text, pp. 363-75 for ideas and techniques. Also, read the shorts in "The Talk of the Town" at the beginning of each New Yorker magazine, and look at earlier editions of the class magazine for examples. Finally, consider using material you wrote for the "Ways In" in Chaps. 1 and 2 of Writing True.
In these little vignettes or slices of life, make your readers see something in a new way, with fresh eyes. This is your purpose. To achieve this end, concentrate on using sensuous language that shows readers what you see, hear, smell, feel about your subject. Rather than tell readers what you see, make your words show them.
"Brief" here means 250-300 words (one to one and a half pages). "Vivid" means that you use details and sensuous words to evoke in the reader’s mind the aspect of life you are discussing. Hand in a paper copy, and also email your observation to me.
1) NARROW DOWN your topic to something small enough to deal with well in so short a piece. For example, "the college's new building" could be narrowed to "relaxing in the foyer of the new building" or "sounds in the new building" or "the view from a room in the new building ." You may have to narrow even a narrow topic still further once you start writing. AVOID two topics that have become clichéd: complaints about the subway or about registering and paying bills at JJ.
2) Even if you think you know the aspect of life that you’re writing about very well, go and OBSERVE IT CLOSELY just for this assignment. Take many notes. You’ll be surprised at the details you see, hear, feel, and smell that you may not have been conscious of before. But you see them now because you know you have to write a paper about them!
3) Write a first draft that is much FULLER AND LONGER than you need. Then go back and cut it down so you sharpen its focus to one specific point and the best descriptive words. Choose words that SHOW readers what you saw rather than merely telling them. Avoid lecturing readers. Instead, write to them as your equals.
4) Give the piece an ATTENTION-GETTING title and first sentence.
5) READ your final draft ALOUD, looking carefully for the kinds of errors you know you sometimes make. Or have someone else read it aloud to you as you follow along on the paper: Do you or your reader say anything that doesn’t appear on the paper? Don't worry about making the piece "perfect," however, since you will have a chance to revise at least once.