Writing About Place

Writing About Place

“Academic writing is notoriously incomprehensible.” With that succinct phrase, Justin Rose, Masters in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, sums up his reason for signing on for Patti Leigh Brown’s J-term course Writing about Place. Brown (LF ’10) brought to the task her experience writing for publications like Architectural Digest, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Metropolis, and the Huffington Post and teaching journalistic writing at Yale and at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rose reflects on the course.

Patty Leigh Brown's Writing About Place J-term SeminarI remember last fall reading an article about ecological urbanism for my History and Theory of Urban Interventions course, and eventually I put down the page and gave up–the morass of abstractions, endless sentences, and awkward jargon was too much. One classmate described it as drunken slam poetry for academics. There is a certain joy to theoretical writing, but many of us in the planning and design disciplines have much to learn about clearly and concisely communicating our ideas.

For the J-term course “Writing About Place,” we had the chance to flex our nonacademic writing muscles. I found it refreshing to put aside the jargon and write succinctly about interesting places, like my grandfather’s old apartment or an offbeat community arts center. Patricia Leigh Brown challenged the class us to act as translators. Design and architecture students can skillfully describe physical spaces with accuracy and precision. It takes more training, however, to turn those descriptions about spaces into lively stories about places.

Patti’s undergraduate seminars in journalistic writing at Yale included a section on writing about place, and she wanted to develop a minicourse for GSD students. She brought a keen eye for detail, gave us thoughtful feedback on our writing, and offered other writing examples for inspiration, such as Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, a vivid look at rural life in China via a cross country road trip. Patti invited us to pay attention to whether quotes propel a narrative and to be liberal about striking unnecessary phrases. We also considered the importance of seducing the reader and reflecting on organic ways to end a story. In addition to these helpful pointers, we learned a bit about journalistic interviewing, or “accelerated intimacy,” as a tool to capture the essence of a place.

Throughout the four 2-hour sessions we had a handful of writing exercises, such as describing a remembered room or exploring a neighborhood haunt through the voice of a “local genius.” During each class we read and discussed our work together. I was impressed by my classmates’ creativity–it doesn’t take much to coax out the writer within each of us. For the final session we traveled to Houghton Library for a brief tour and conversation about the Samuel Johnson Room, a rich source of stories just down the road from Gund Hall.

As a planning student, I found the class especially helpful. Planners need to translate complex urban issues for policymakers and ordinary residents alike. We also need to observe and listen–to really listen–to people and translate their stories into planning action. We do not get many chances to explore this kind of storytelling, to capture the unique moments, faces, and feelings that give our favorite places life. I highly recommend that GSD students take advantage of chances to hone their writing in this way. “Writing About Place” was the perfect primer.

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