Writing Exercises

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what writing exercises I do and how I do them, so I figured I’d post my current favorite writing prompt:

Take a song lyric, use it as your first line, and free-write for three minutes. Pick a short phrase – ex. “Come on, baby” instead of “Come on, baby, light my fire,” so it will be easier to allow yourself the freedom to go in a different direction from the actual song lyrics. If you decide you like the ideas you’ve come up with, make sure to take out the song lyric in the next round of edits.


My personal preference is to write in pencil on unlined paper. For me, the lack of lines limits the grade school test anxiety flashbacks, and the pencil on paper limits potential internet distractions. Different things work for different people. If you need a special pen, go for it. If you like to write on posterboard, go for it. The most important thing for you to do is write. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, handwriting, etc. Just let your mind finish the first phrase and keep going.

I set the timer on my phone and write for 30 minutes, but keep in mind that this is what I do, so putting that kind of time in makes sense for me. If you want to write but don’t feel like you can squeeze it in, try five minutes. Or put some food in the microwave and write until the timer goes off. The point is to get ideas out, see what’s lurking in the dark recesses of your brain, and see if you can turn it into anything you’ll really want to work on.

Keep in mind that the end result of your writing exercise will not be good. It shouldn’t be good. It’s just a prompt, not a polished piece. You’re just getting ideas, and just as you don’t expect poetic perfection from yourself when you write out a grocery list, you shouldn’t expect it from a writing exercise. Do not edit yourself in the exercise process – the editing comes later. Put your pen down and just write. Sometimes, you’ll get something you want to keep working on, and sometimes you won’t. Coming up short does not mean you’re a bad writer, it means that the prompt, plus the instances of your day and your current frame of mind didn’t equal an interesting idea. Don’t give up.

In the same vein, do not allow yourself to see what you’ve come up with in a writing exercise as the end result. Don’t do a writing exercise, decide it’s actually quite a brilliant little short story and immediately submit it to McSweeney’s. Sleep on it. For many nights. Good stories take editing. Good stories take pondering and tweaking and adjusting. There are times when a complete idea will come out all at once and you’ll end up with the bones of an amazing story. You will still need time to fill in the skin and the hair and the fingernails and put a little cover up on the zits and under-eye circles. I’m sorry I turned us all into weird Dr. Frankensteins just now, but seriously, edit your work, even if you think it’s awesome at the first pass.

Do you do writing exercises? Is it something you’re interested in starting? Do you have any interesting writing rituals that work for you?

Comments

  1. Reluctant Blogger says

    No, I don’t but I am going to try this. It sounds like a lot of fun.

    I always use song titles for my blogposts. Generally I write a piece that is in my head and then look for a suitable song title afterwards but occasionally if I can think of nothing to write, I turn on the radio and use the title of the first song to play as my prompt. If I have a title chosen at random I can ALWAYS think of something to write.

  2. Reluctant Blogger says

    No, I don’t but I am going to try this. It sounds like a lot of fun.

    I always use song titles for my blogposts. Generally I write a piece that is in my head and then look for a suitable song title afterwards but occasionally if I can think of nothing to write, I turn on the radio and use the title of the first song to play as my prompt. If I have a title chosen at random I can ALWAYS think of something to write.

  3. This is a good reminder. I always think that “real” writers have writing exercises…needless to say, I haven’t exactly started mine yet! :)
    But I want to, and I’ve felt myself growing tired of my same routine, so I think I’ll try a few. Thanks!!!

  4. Thanks for posting this! what a great idea. I’m going to try it. In the past, I’ve always enjoyed Natalie Goldberg’s writing prompts in some of her books. I’m kind of sick of them, lately though.

  5. This reminds me of writing exercises I used to do in the seventh grade which were probably some of the sources of my desire to write for a living. So that’s a good thing.

    I’ve gotten so far removed from creative writing, that I’m making it a pledge to myself to sit down this summer and start fleshing out the novel that’s been living in my brain for nearly five years now.

  6. I need to write more, so thanks for the ideas.

  7. I don’t do, but should do. I picked up a writing book that looked interesting a few days ago that has a lot of good ideas. Hoping to get started soon

  8. I love your grocery list analogy. I tend to limit myself because of my perfectionist tendencies (I even rewrite grocery lists if they’re “too messy”), but your analogy made complete sense to me. Ditto for the skeleton to cover-up and eye cream part, loved that! Thank you for the great ideas!

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