Syllabus Calendar Quizzes Discussion Writing Sites Resources Home
Mapping Rome : Travel Writing
Introduction Objectives Assignments Grading Writing tips

The city of Rome has long been a haven for writers, from ancient poets who moved to the city, to native essayists and novelists, to expatriates who never ended their Grand Tours.

   Exploring Rome will require students to keep blogs and complete short writing assignments. Students will prepare for those assignments in Mapping Rome with some practice writing prior to departure.


In addition to preparing for Exploring Rome, these assignments will enable students to

  • hone writing skills through observation and reflection;

  • translate lived experience into the written word; and

  • participate in the long tradition of writing about Rome.

Students will complete four short creative writing assignments. Most will require less than a typed, double-spaced page of text. All assignments will be completed online, in blogs. Each completed assignment should appear in your blog by the deadline.

   Please use Blogger or WordPress for your blog, and start a new blog rather than tacking on to an existing one. Please do not use Instagram or other social media sites.

   In all of these exercises, your immediate audience consists of your peers and your instructors, though you may wish to imagine a broader audience of family and friends.

Examples of Writing Assignments (Spring 2011 to present)

Momentary blindness (250 words minimum)
Saturday, February 2, 11:00 p.m.

In a public place describe a moment (here defined as a ten-minute period or so) as it unfolds, using all of your senses except sight. Of course, you'll need to open your eyes to write, but the point is not to look around. Rather, narrate what you hear, touch, smell, and even taste.

   At the end of your assignment, put the location and the date of your "going blind" in parentheses.

   If you have not yet set up your Blogger or WordPress blog, be sure to do so. Please email your instructors with the URL, so that they can access your work.

Voyeur (250 words minimum)
Saturday, February 23, 11:00 p.m.

In a public place, observe a person or persons out and about: a worker, a tourist, a family, nuns — whoever catches your eye. Describe where they are, what they look like, and what they are doing, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) you don't understand what it is. Offer a back story for your characters to explain their actions. What has brought them here? Why do they do what they do?

   You are encouraged to get off campus for inspiration. At the end of your assignment, put the location and date of your observation in parentheses.

Ekphrasis (250 words minimum)
Saturday, March 23, 11:00 p.m.

NOTE: Before reading the instructions, consult Prof. Spinner's Ekphrasis, Explained handout.

Ekphrasis is literary device used by ancient poets! (< Gk. "narration").

   Pick one (1) image or object currently on display at the Tang museum. Do not choose something abstract, or an audio or video installation. The object about which you write must be representational enough so that your writing can be sufficiently descriptive.

   While your finished work is a writing exercise, it starts as an exercise in looking. You will have to look slowly and carefully (rinse, repeat) at your subject, so that seeing becomes less passive and actively engages the mind: How is this thing constructed? Where do the eyes begin, move, or rest? What does it communicate to viewers?

   Now translate your observations into words. Narrate, rather than name. This means using verbs to describe what the object does, and not just nouns to label it. Instead of flatly telling your reader what, instruct your reader how she would see this thing if she were in its presence. Move systematically up or down, across the image or around the object, and trace that form with words.

   Be playful; be beguiling. Choose words that evoke, that enchant. Can someone who has not gone to the Tang read your description and then visualize this piece in her mind's eye?

   Write out a draft, and then edit it over the course of one week. Rewrite your pieces, polishing your ekphrasis until it shines like a literary gem.

   At the end of your assignment, put the location and date of your exphrasis in parentheses, as well as the name of the artist, the title of the work, and the year it was created (if known).

Giornale (Journal) (500 words minimum)
Saturday, April 13, 11:00 p.m.

A travelogue or narrative of an excursion. What did you do and see? What did you discover? How did you get there? What happened along the way? Who was with you? What did you learn? This is your chance to personalize a journey and allow your readers to see through your eyes. Some analysis and interpretation is expected, but the key to this exercise is vibrant, descriptive storytelling.


Although these assignments are dry runs for Exploring Rome, you should still try to develop a prose style that will serve you well in the Eternal City. And of course you should always give your best effort.

   That said, your blog posts will be evaluated more for their content, grammar, and structure, than their style. Your instructors will provide feedback on all of these aspects, but the feedback on style (which includes such nebulous issues as showing versus telling, conciseness versus wordiness, authenticity versus affectation) should be taken as friendly advice prior to arriving in Rome.

Writing tips

Travel writing is an extremely varied genre, but it does have some uniform best practices. Here are some tips to consider as you complete your assignments.

Capture what's new to you

Travel writing, though multifaceted, is in no way new. But you must find novelty in writing about your travels, thereby making it new for your audience as well.

Use your senses

Sight, primarily, but also hearing, smell, touch, taste. Take advantage of how the focus of your senses sharpens because of travel, and hone it further through writing.

Describe, don't analyze

This is a variation on that old rule, "Show, don't tell." However, being in a historic place, you might find yourself reacting to the events and persons that have shaped it. Fine, but remember that you're not writing a textbook or a travel guide (at least not on this trip).

Be there and be you

That is, don't worry so much about your readers that you diminish your own experience. Yes, family and friends might well read your posts even while the trip is running, but it is not your responsibility to enable their vicarious pleasures at every turn.

Put yourself (and your friends) in the picture

What's a scene without characters? Travel writing at its best is often a deeply personal genre — it's not about the destination as much as the journey — so personalize it.

Seek the unobvious

Be drawn to what you're drawn to. Follow your curiosity, not the masses. Be open to making connections across your trip — recurring details or images from place to place, for example.

Jot first, write later

If you try for perfection in a single sitting, you'll never get anywhere. Learn to take small but helpful notes on site to flesh out later.

© MMXIX Skidmore College Classics Department