|Angelous short sketch,
"Picking Cotton" is from her autobiographical
book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This
selection illustrates her approach for the whole book; it
is largely a series of relatively short, self-contained,
highly polished stories or sketches like this one.
Because of this short, high quality nature, her works are
often used as examples in writing classes.
Cotton is a kind of essay. It has a thesis
statement, which is supported with evidence.
It is a "claim with reasons,"
that is, an argument.
The following two statements mean
roughly the same thing:
Claim + reasons = argument
Thesis + evidence = essay
While Angelous argument shares the same main features as all argument, some distinctions are worth noting. First of all, she places her claim (the thesis
statement) at the very end of the essay. Very few writers
have the skill to place a thesis at the end as she does.
Although she makes it look easy and natural, it is very
difficult, usually requiring a good deal of rewriting. I
dont recommend this strategy for beginning writers.
To place a thesis at the end usually requires drafting an
entire essay in the standard manner and then
restructuring it sentence by sentence until the arrival
of the delayed thesis seems as natural as if we had
already discovered it before we reached it.
the nature of the evidence (the reasons) in this
argument is striking. Angelou relies almost totally on
the rhetorical strategy of description.
Angelou is widely recognized as a master of this skill.
For our purposes, description may be
defined the use of sensory details. In using
description writers attempt to recreate sensory
experiences in the mind of the reader, using words that
evoke the following:
If you study Angelous story, you
will see that she has included each of these at various
places in the essay. Unlike beginning writers, she does
not rely totally on the sense of sight.
The key to effective
use of sensory details is specificity. When you
use description dont talk about trees or dogs or
cars but rather about an old silver maple with a tire
swing and initials carved in the trunk, standing in the
yard of a white Victorian house in an old and quiet
neighborhood. Talk about a blond cocker spaniel with mud
on its front left paw. Talk about a rebuilt, two-tone
57 Chevy Bel Aire, blue on white, with tinted
glass. Make the reader smell the leaves, taste the
coffee, touch the velvet.
Notice how Angelou
makes the readers hear the homemade slippers sliding
across the rough wooden floor. We smell onions and
oranges and kerosene. We see the caterpillar
green cotton fields. We taste soda crackers and
sardines. We feel the coarse texture of the cotton sacks.
Since "Dulce et Decorum Est" is a poem, it may not at first seem to be an argument. But the poet as a definite argumentative goal and uses vivid description to achieve his purpose. The two selections by Mark Twain are from his book Huckleberry
Finn. Supposedly they are spoken by Huck himself, and as such, they are certainly not models for grammatical purity. But read beyond the dialect and find the sounds, smells and other sensory details. "Landibg Zone Bravo" is from Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel Going After Cacciato (although calling it novel about the Vietnam War is a little like calling Moby Dick a book about fish). In addition to the plethora of sensory details, pay particular attention to O'Brien's ability to capture the sense of three dimensional motion by the simple device of a Coke can.
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Your task is to
write an essay of at least 500 words describing a place.
Write a one-sentence
thesis that expresses the dominant mood or impression of
(For example: Sams Bar and Grill on Petunia
Street is a very frightening place on a Friday
night or My Grandmothers Kitchen is a
model of domestic efficiency or Mr.
Dills office clearly demonstrates the lifestyle of
those who suffer from terminal clutter.
Support this claim
by presenting sensory details.
Restrictions: The place you describe must meet
the following requirements
- The place must NOT be in your own home.
must be room sized, though not necessarily
indoors. A patio, courtyard, or street corner
will do. But it must small
enough to be completely seen form a single
vantage point. Do not attempt to describe a city,
country, island, state, etc.
- It must be real. That is, it must be a physical place, located on Earth, within this particular space-time dimension, capable of being visited by normal human beings without the aid of drugs or astral projection. I make no judgments about whether your spiritual or psychokinetic experiences are real; I only say that I am not going. This also means I do not want essays describing the inside of your nose, eyelids, etc.
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A Writing Process for Description
Probably the hardest thing for any writer is coming up
with something to say. Students always complain about
this, but, surprisingly, professional writers have the
same trouble. The truth is, deciding what to say is
probably the hardest part of the writing process.
Classically this step has been called either Discovery or Invention. It is the first and most important of the five canons of classical rhetoric, the others being Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. (See the Classical Rhetoric file for more information about these terms.) Only the first three of these concern us in a writing class.
Discovery includes lots of techniques that
we will be studying later, but for right now these
thoughts may help:
- You are going to be writing an argument
that does two main things
- Expresses a MOOD or feeling about a
place. We call this a Pathos
argument. Those Discovery techniques that
apply to other kinds of argument (Logos and
Ethos) will not be useful
- Supports the claim with sensory
details (observations), rather than with
other kinds of evidence such as expert
testimony, contracts, laws, witnesses, etc.,
do not apply
- You are attempting to create a sensory
experience for the reader. The reader cannot see,
hear, feel, taste, touch, or smell the place you
are describing, nor can the reader visualize
spatial arrangements unless you lay them out.
- Your goal is to persuade the reader to
accept your claim about the place you are
describing, but in order to do this you must not
place unwarranted burdens on the reader in terms
of grammar errors, spelling errors, or
punctuation errors. You should also try to avoid
putting the reader to sleep with flat, dull
To put it clearly, there are four elements necessary
for success. Memorize them.
- UnityThe essay must have
a single rhetorical purpose, expressed in a
thesis statement. Everything in the essay should
work toward gaining acceptance of that statement.
- SpecificityThe essay
must be rich in supporting evidence, in this
case, sensory details.
- CoherenceThe essay must
be clear and orderly and it must be
understandable (free of confusing and distracting
- StyleThe essay should
use appropriate, word choice, sentence patterns
and figures of speech.
To help you achieve these things in your essay, I
suggest the following process:
- Go to the place and study it for quite
- Apply some discovery tool. You might
begin with the traditional Who, What, When,
Where, Why, and How questions.
- Write a one sentence claim about the
- Make lists of experiences for each of
the five senses.
- Choose from all these specific details
those that best support you thesis.
- Decide on a vantage point from which to
describe the place (from a chair in the corner,
from a door way, from a sidewalk, etc.). This
vantage point acts as a sort of camera for the
- Select a general arrangement for the
details you are going to present (front to back,
left to right, clockwise, etc.).
- Express these details in language that
is clear and forceful
- Avoid excessive use of passive
- Avoid excessive use of there
is/there are constructions.
- Avoid excessive use of the verb
to be, using instead, actions
verbs. Excessive use of is, are, was, were,
etc., changes the descriptive into a mere
list that cannot achieve its persuasive goal.
- Write a draft. Have a friend review it.
Put it away for at least a day.
- Rethink and Revise the essay completely.
- Write a final draft, proofread it
(reading out loud may help), and turn it in.