Where to Find It (an exercise)

C. W. Eckersberg, Vesta Temple in Rome, 1814-1816, Source: Nivaagaard Collection

Think of a place you know well or a thing you know exactly where to find. Make it an interesting place or thing, and make it one you’d like others to be able to find. I’m not thinking of your special place, or secret stash; I’m thinking of a place or thing that other people will be grateful you told them about and helped them locate. There must be lots of them to choose from, and I want you to just pick one of them — one, like I say, that you know well. You not only know how to find it but why someone would want to. When imagining the “someone”, the “other people”, just think of your fellow students in a class, or your peers in your scholarly discipline.

Your assignment will be to write a five paragraph essay that explains where this thing or place is — how to find it. It will take roughly five minutes to read. I want you to think seriously about how to begin, which also means imagining that your reader begins somewhere, in some location (some distance from the destination) or in some state of deprivation (in need of the thing you know how to find). Choose a common location, one that will be familiar to most readers or, at least, one that they will be more easily able to find than the thing or place you’re going to be guiding them towards. I also want you to think seriously about where they’re going to end up. Just before they find it, what will they be experiencing? What puzzle may be confronting them? Should they turn right or left? When you say, “open the drawer,” will there be any doubt as to which drawer you’re talking about? What’s the last thing they will see before they see the thing you want them to find or arrive at their destination? And how, finally, will they know they succeeded?

In between, you have to write three paragraphs. That means at least 18 sentences and at most 600 words. Be strategic about this. Choose a problem that can be solved within that space. And make sure it can be divided meaningfully into three sets of instructions. Don’t make it so far away or so difficult to find that you’ll need thousands of words to make it clear. But also don’t make it so easy that the reader feels like you’re just wasting their time and that they would have been there by now if you had just gotten to the point. Pick a place or thing to find, and a place or state to begin with, that puts meaningful bounds on the problem. Understand the deep connection here between your problem as a writer and your reader’s problem as a seeker. You’re trying to help them find something.

Give yourself three hours to write the essay. That gives you time to spend 27 minutes on each paragraph, taking a three-minute break between them. You’ll also have a bit of time (say, 15 minutes) at the beginning to think about what you’re going to write about and at the end to read it through and fix minor things. Since you get to choose where to begin and what to find based on your own knowledge, and since your reader is just a fellow student in your class, the “knowledge” that is needed here is entirely yours to decide. You will presume your reader lacks some knowledge, but also that they have some other knowledge (or they wouldn’t know what you mean at all). Make these assumptions wisely. Finally, remember that you have more than 30 times longer to write this thing than the reader has to read it. Remember to enjoy this advantage.

Please keep this concrete. Don’t guide your reader towards some abstraction. Don’t tell them how to find love or their dream job. That’s another assignment for another day. Next time, perhaps, you can explain to the reader how to do something you know how to do well. Another time, you can write about how to observe a particular fact of nature, or how to comply with a particular cultural norm. You can explain how to build a physical structure or how to solve a social problem. The variations are infinite. But, for this one, just tell your reader how to find the Phillips screwdriver in your shed or the best bench in your favorite park.

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