One of this website's many deficiencies is its lack of a blog post where I tell you I consulted a big book of big knowledge and learned a new perspective on an everyday word. Today I right that wrong.
The word of the day is, you guessed it, immediacy. A quick Google search (dictionary was buried in the garage) directs me to what I'm sure is a 100% reliable source of etymological knowledge, where I learn that "immediacy" comes from "immediate" (I actually knew this already), and that "immediate" comes from Late Latin "immediatus," meaning "without anything in between." Immediatus comes from some even older words (!), but since those do not make my point as conveniently, I invoke my artistic license and hereby omit them.
Immediacy means "without anything in between." And after you've chosen your topic, immediacy is your goal, is it not? You want the reader to see what you saw. The more you do that, the closer the reader feels to you.
Actions & Details
Allow me to share with you a quotation from Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, about how to create immediacy:
"Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating."
This concept of "just show the physical actions and details" has helped me get my students out of the "thought zone." Maybe you've faced this problem. You went through some experience, and it produced Deep Thoughts & Feelings. So you try to convey those Deep Thoughts & Feelings by saying how "amazing" the thing was or what you "learned" from the experience. Maybe sprinkle in some "really" or "very" somewhere to show how intense it was. To really hammer home the point, write like 8 of those sentences together, and then lament that you can't use ALL CAPS for emphasis. Right?
Deep Thoughts & Feelings are a great way to zero in on a topic. No point writing about something you don't care about. Yet though they're great for topic selection, they're not so great for topic execution. Why? They make your essay sound just like all the other essays talking about Deep Thoughts & Feelings: generic. Your essay's fingerprint is not Deep Thoughts & Feelings, but rather Deep Actions & Details. I mean the "physical actions and details" Palahniuk mentions. If you spell out the Deep Actions & Details, the reader will infer your Deep Thoughts & Feelings.
I explain the concept of immediacy to my students in terms of a GoPro camera. If you were wearing a GoPro during the experience you're writing about, what actions and details would it have picked up? Similarly, if a GoPro were focused on your face and body the whole time, what actions and details would it have picked up? When you answer these questions, you begin to understand immediacy.
Let me give you an example of how this works. The other day, at some point during my mindless wandering across the vast plains of the internet, I encountered a cover of the song Roxanne by The Police. I try to avoid Roxanne. When she enters my car, I banish her. The radio station is altered and, therefore, upgraded with great haste.
Yet I managed to watch the Roxanne video below all the way through. I know why. It's the camera. The video is a single shot. The camera pans left and right, up and down. I feel like I am right there in an abandoned brick building in Germany with the musicians. Nothing between the subject and me. Immediacy.
If you have a couple minutes, watch the video and see what details it picks up. Think about which ones you remember, and why. Observing sights and sounds is the first step to writing with immediacy. It is annoying to write with immediacy. It's far easier to fall back on Deep Thoughts & Feelings. But -- resist! If you fight to find your Deep Actions & Details, your essay will improve.
Your Best Essay
Writing with immediacy is especially important if you don't feel like you have a great topic. Many students who have lived fairly ordinary lives so far feel like their topics aren't "good enough." True, you might not have an epic story with obstacles worthy of Odysseus. But the good news is that even an ordinary story improves with immediacy.
Don't get caught up in writing "the" best essay. Stay focused on writing "your" best essay. Hint: immediacy.
Good luck writing!
Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.