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The 300-word (essay) challenge

04.08.2011

in TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

One of the best ways to learn something is to watch a master at work. William Zinsser is a master. While his books will teach you a lot of what you need to know to write well, his writing will teach you more. He deserves to be read – and re-read – by anyone who wants to write. This article, reproduced from The American Scholar, is a good lesson in essay writing.

I once got a call from a woman who said she was the editor of a magazine called Endless Vacations. Endless vacations! The very name gave me a thrill: a vacation that never stopped. I could be seamlessly whisked from a safari in Kenya to a Club Med on the Riviera to a temple dance in Bali. When I calmed down I realized that what was endless was the number of vacations being recommended by the magazine, not the vacation itself. But I was hooked.

The editor explained that a regular feature of her magazine was a 300-word essay, on the back page, about an iconic American site. She had seen a review of my book American Places, a journey to 16 such sites, and she asked if I would write some 300-word icon pieces for her. I said that after two years of traveling and writing I was through with the icon business, but that she could buy any of my chapters and I would condense them into 300-word excerpts. I believe that anything can be cut to 300 words.

The editor agreed, and for a while we kept that gig going. After that she again asked if I would try writing a 300-word piece from scratch. By then I thought it might be an interesting exercise. I only insisted that the site be close to home; I didn’t want to fly to San Francisco to write 300 words about the Golden Gate Bridge. The site I chose was Ellis Island, a mere subway and ferry ride away.

My only preparation was arrange an interview with Ellis Island’s superintendent; places are only places until they are given meaning by the people who look after them. I just spent a day walking around the site, taking as many notes as I would for a 5,000-word article. Nonfiction writers should always gather far more material than they will use, never knowing which morsel will later exactly serve their needs.

Here’s Ellis Island in 300 words:

Of the two highly symbolic pieces of land in New York harbor, the more obvious icon is the Statue of Liberty; the lady embodies every immigrant’s dream of America. But I’ll take Ellis Island—that’s an icon with its feet in reality. Almost half the people now living in America can trace their ancestry to the 12 million men and women and children who entered the country there. mainly between 1892 and 1924. “It’s their Plymouth Rock,” says M. Ann Belkov, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Immigration Museum, which occupies the distinctive red brick building, now handsomely restored, where the immigrants were processed. “Tourists who come here are walking in their families’ footsteps,” Belkov told me. “Three of my four grandparents first stepped on land in the U.S.A. in this building.”

Unlike most museums, which preserve the dead past, Ellis Island feels almost alive, or at least within reach of living memory. People we all know made history–American history and their own history–in the vast Registry Room, where as many as 5,000 newcomers a day were examined by officials and doctors and were served meals that contained strange and wonderful foods. Many had never seen a banana. “The white bread was like cake already,” says one old man who came from Russia, his voice typical of the many oral recollections that animate the building, along with exhibits displaying the much-loved possessions that the immigrants brought from their own culture: clothes and linens and embroidery, ornaments and religious objects and musical instruments.

Strong faces stare out of innumerable photographs: men and women from every cranny of the world. The captions quote them eloquently on the poverty and persecution that impelled them to leave (“always there was the police”) and on the unbelievable freedoms that awaited them here. One of them says, “It was as if God’s great promise had been fulfilled.”

Is there anything more about Ellis Island that an ordinary reader needs to know? The first paragraph is packed with necessary facts about the site: its setting and historical importance. It also contains an ideal summarizing metaphor (“It was their Plymouth Rock”) and a tremendous fact about American possibility: in two generations the granddaughter of three of those immigrants had become superintendent of the place where they “first stepped on land in the U.S.A.” The second paragraph fills the long-empty buildings with people–old-world men and women marveling at white bread and bananas—and with the belongings they couldn’t bear to leave behind. The final paragraph tells what kind of people they were–what they looked and sounded like. It also explains why they left the oppression at home to seek a new life in America.

The language is highly compressed. Facts are crammed into one sentence that I would normally spread over three or four sentences, adding rhythm and grace and some agreeable details. But nothing fundamental has been lost; the grammar and the syntax are intact.

My students tell me that this 300-word piece is unusually helpful. They seem to be taken by surprise by its economy–that so much work can be accomplished just by tightening some screws. But the English language is endlessly supple. It will do anything you ask it to do, if you treat it well. Try it and see.

You can learn more about writing and America by reading Zinsser on Friday every week.

Warren Ediger

Related Reading: Learning to write (a four-part series; follow the links at the end of each article); Better writing (a two-part series; follow the link at the end of the first article)

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