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Writing Rome : Travel writing
Introduction Objectives Assignments Schedule Writing tips

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 Tour. The city is a muse, inspiring odes, histories, epics, elegies, novels, short stories, essays, letters, memoirs, tragedies, and comedies.

The writing exercises of Writing Rome are the foundation of the course. Through short, direct compositions students will give voice to their time in Rome, producing a substantial body of written work along the way.


These assigments 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 10 short writing assignments over the course of the tour, and they will receive ongoing feedback from the instructional team.

The assignments will generally require less than the equivalent of a typed, double-spaced page of text. All should be posted on your public blog, though you might choose to type and edit them in a word processing program first.

Your immediate audience consists of your peers and your instructors. You might, however, wish to imagine a broader audience of family and friends.

Most assignments will be due roughly 48 hours after we have begun it onsite or after a solo excursion, and in any case always by 7:00 p.m. Assigments that come later in our tour will have truncated completion times. See the schedule below for a complete overview of start times and stop times.

Note that the Ekphrasis, Envoi, Momentary blindness, Space & place, and Voyeur assignments have fixed deadlines. Your Giornali, however, have some flexibility.

Your instructors will review your posts, make notes, and meet with you individually at regular intervals to offer critiques and assess your progress.

Below are the kinds of assignments you will be asked to complete over the course of the semester, with their guidelines. You have encountered most of them before in Reading Rome, but you may also consult this compendium of examples from Spring 2011.

Please note that the word counts below are minimum, not maximum limits. We encourage you to write more, not less. We prefer to read pieces that end with a thoughtful conclusion, rather than those that end when the word count is met.

Ekphrasis (250 words minimum)

A literary device from hallowed antiquity! Choose an art object and describe it in a way that the reader can see it in his or her imagination. Don't begin by identifying the object or the medium. Do try to bring the piece to life through finely-observed detail. Don't jump around. Rather, direct the imagined gaze of your reader carefully over the object. Translate the visual into the verbal.

Naturally, Ekphrasis lends itself to museums. At the end of your assignment, put the title of the piece, its location, and any other pertinent information in parentheses.

Envoi (750 words minimum)

An envoi is the conclusion of a written work, which often includes the author's parting words. Your envoi will be your final blog entry, posted 48 hours after the tour is over, where you will look back on your Roman tour and bring your writing of it to a close — for now.

Giornale (Journal) (500 or 600 words minimum)

A travelogue or a narrative of a solo excursion (see below). 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 your time in Rome and allow your readers to see the city through your eyes.

Some analysis and interpretation is expected, but the key to this exercise is good, descriptive storytelling. You may also incorporate another writing exercise (Ekphrasis, Momentary blindness, Space & place, Voyeur) into your Giornale; if you do, the minumum word count will be 600 words; this is to ensure that the incorporated assignment does not overwhelm your travelogue.

The subject of your Giornali (note the plural) will be the four solo excursions you will undertake during our time in Rome. On our Itinerary we have set aside seven excursion opportunities for you. Choose four of these opportunities and visit one place from each of these four catagories:

Larger Churches Smaller Churches
Church of the Gesù S. Cecilia in Trastevere
S. Lorenzo fuori le mura S. Lorenzo in Lucina
S. Paulo fuori le mura S. Maria della Concezione & Crypt
S. Maria in Trastevere S. Maria della Vittoria
S. Maria Maggiore S. Maria in Cosmedin
. S. Stefano Rotondo
. .
Museums Antiquities
Capitoline Museums Castel Sant'Angelo
Casa di Goethe Markets of Trajan
Galleria Doria Pamphilj Villa Giulia
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna Palazzo Altemps
Keats-Shelley Memorial House .
Museo degli Strumenti Musicali .
Scuderie del Quirinale .
Palazzo Barberini .

We call these "solo excursions," but you should feel free to plan your visits with a friend (or more than one). If there's a destination that's not listed here, consult with your instructors.

Reading Rome has prepared you for the sights and materials you will encounter on your excursions. That said, you are responsible for researching potential destinations: when they open, what they contain, cost of admission, and so forth. (This is why we have provided no links: to encourage you to take ownership of your excursions.)

While many of the above are free, some will cost as much as €15.00. Admissions are included in the subsidies you received prior to departure. The Blue Guide will be helpful to your planning, but you should verify all of the particulars online prior to your departure. Note that many museums, but not all, are closed on Mondays, so always check before you go.

Finally, remember that you have seven opportunities to make four solo excursions and write Giornali. Pick and choose your opportunities carefully, especially if you have a site report looming.

Momentary blindness (250 words minimum)

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 (if you happen to be eating or drinking something).

At the end of your assignment, put the location and the date on which you "went blind" in parentheses.

Space & place (250 words minimum)

Document your movement through an enclosed space. In what order do you, or are you allowed to, proceed? How do you react to what you see and learn along the way?  How does your response align with what the designers of the space (seem to have) intended? What is your personal sense of place — insider, outsider, guest, stranger — within this space?

A museum or any other public exhibition space would be an ideal location. At the end of your assignment, put the location and the date visited in parentheses.

Voyeur (250 words minimum)

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 are doing, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) you do not understand what it is. Compose a back story for your characters to explain their actions. What has brought them here?  Why are they doing what they are doing?

At the end of your assignment, put the location and date of your observation in parentheses.


As noted above, all assignments are due at 7:00 in the evenings (though freel free to post them sooner). Some of the later assignments have truncated deadlines.

The assignments, deadlines, and instructors' critiques are also listed in our Itinerary. The links will take you to the assignment descriptions (above).


  • Begin: Tuesday morning, May 19.
  • Due: Thursday evening, May 21, 7:00 p.m.

Space & place

  • Begin: Thursday morning, May 21 (Palatine Hill).
  • Due: Saturday evening, May 23, 7:00 p.m.


  • Begin: Friday afternoon, May 22.
  • Due: Sunday evening, May 24, 7:00 p.m.


  • Begin: Saturday morning, May 23 (Villa Borghese).
  • Due: Monday evening, May 25, 7:00 p.m.


  • Begin: Sunday afternoon, May 24.
  • Due: Tuesday evening, May 26, 7:00 p.m.


  • Begin: Tuesday morning or afternoon, May 26.
  • Due: Thursday evening, May 28, 7:00 p.m.


  • Begin: Wednesday morning, May 27 (Piazza San Pietro).
  • Due: Friday evening, May 29, 7:00 p.m.

Momentary blindness

  • Begin: Thursday afternoon, May 28 (Aventine Hill).
  • Due: Saturday evening, May 30, 7:00 p.m.


  • Begin: Saturday afternoon, May 30.
  • Due: Monday evening, June 1, 7:00 p.m.

Writer's choice (Ekphrasis, Momentary blindness, Space & place, Voyeur)

  • Begin: Sunday morning, May 31 (Ostia Antica).
  • Due: Monday evening, June 1, 7:00 p.m. (Note shorter deadline)


  • Begin: Monday afternoon, June 1.
  • Due: Tuesday evening, June 2, 7:00 p.m. (Note shorter deadline)


  • Begin: Tuesday afternoon, June 2.
  • Due: Tuesday evening, June 2, 7:00 p.m. (Note shorter deadline)


  • Due: Friday evening, June 5, 7:00 p.m., from wherever you are.
Writing tips

Travel writing is a polymorphous genre, but there are some practices common to all writers.  Here are some tips to follow as you complete your assignments.

Capture what's new to you

Travel writing, though multifaceted, is in no way new. But you yourself must find the 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 onsite that you can flesh out later.

© MMXV Skidmore College Classics Department