Write a paragraph or series of paragraphs
This is an activity that I did several times over when I was a student at Mt. San Antonio College and had one particular instructor several times over. It’s something she does with ALL her courses, regardless of their content, because one of the biggest problems students have with writing is that they think they are being more vivid, specific, and descriptive than they really are, particularly when writing about their own experiences. They are writing and have the movie of the people and places and details in their head as they type, so they think the reader sees that same movie. THE READER DOESN’T! You have to pick your words carefully to fully “paint the picture” with those words for the audience to really “see” (and otherwise experience through other senses’ details) what you mean. So, without further ado…
Pick someplace to go that is outside of your normal haunt. That means don’t just do this sitting at your computer desk, marveling at the wonder that is Canvas. You can do this exercise anywhere else you like…just don’t do so sitting at your computer. Today this is English 1A Unplugged! Someplace on PCC campus is good, or at a restaurant, at a park, in a library, at the mall…anywhere that is not just your desk! Get to whatever place you like and settle in.
Now that you have been in your selected spot for at least a few minutes, take several more minutes to take in your surroundings more fully. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, movement, textures, and other sensory details. Now make some notes about what you notice. Try to be as specific as descriptive as possible. Don’t just say “small” or “green.” What is small to one person may not be small to another. What shade of green? What makes a tree “huge?” Be specific and detailed. Try to include things that a casual observer would not see at a glance, but your careful observation lets you notice. THIS CAREFUL OBSERVATION AND TAKING THINGS IN WITH ALL APPLICABLE SENSES SHOULD TAKE SOME TIME, AND YOUR NOTES SHOULD BE SUBSTANTIAL…THIS IS NOT A FIVE MINUTE PROCESS! When I do this activity with my face to face classes, I give them an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes to do it…please try to get into the proper frame of mind to take time with this, even though it is a simple process and maybe even a little bit silly to some of you!
**Note: If a particular sense does not apply to where you are and what you are doing, you do not have to include it. For example, if you are stuffing your cake hole with a Famous Star with cheese, you should probably make sure to discuss its sensations of scent and taste. If you’re just sitting on a bench someplace watching the world go by, taste probably does not apply!**
Now for the last step. On a separate sheet of paper, use your notes above to write a paragraph or series of paragraphs where you describe to your reader just what it is like to be where you are. “Paint the picture” with words so that your reader, who has never seen that place and is not there when you are can really imagine what it is like to be there. Remember…be descriptive as possible and specific as possible. If you go overboard on the description, that is okay…just make sure your reader can really imagine the place where you are. This is not an essay…it’s just a block of vivid, detailed description where you are being as specific as possible, and not relying on general, vague descriptors.
Here are two examples of past submissions, from when I had some Cal Poly Pomona students do this same exercise years back. The first example is poorly done; it is vague, brief, and tells you very little in the way of specific information. The second example describes the exact same location, but is obviously much more vivid and realistic. You can “see” the place!
Even though I forced you away from your computer desk to do this “unplugged,” please now type up your writing so it is easy for me to read. Submit this to me for points. If you are technically able to do so, I’d like to see your notes and the handwritten version, too, so if it is possible to scan those pages or take photos of them to send me, please do so. If you are not tech savvy enough for this, or simply do not have access to a scanner or camera phone (liar!), please let me know, and we will figure something out.
The length of this piece of writing when done by hand should be around two thirds of a page at minimum, and going over that limit is just fine, too!