The great American author Sinclair Lewis made a huge impact on writing and writers alike. His prose remains with us today as “classic” – something that will never go out of style. Once, this author was asked to give a lecture on writing to college students. He gazed around the room and stated, “Looking out at this gathering makes me want to know how many of you really and truly wish to become writers.” As might be expected, every hand in the room shot up. Sinclair Lewis looked at all the raised hands, folded his notes, and put them away before saying, “If that’s true, then the best advice I can give you is to go home and start writing.” Nothing more, nothing less, Lewis turned and left the room.
It’s a statement that writers hear over and over: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. No magic bullet, no miracle solutions to developing you into what you dream to be. You just have to start writing – and keep writing.
The problem is that once you’ve decided that you’re going to write, you usually set up a writing schedule and sit down to get to work … drawing a blank as clean as the sheet of paper in front of you.
Why Writing Exercises
Beyond the novel that inches line-by-line toward completion or the series of articles that slowly grow day-by-day, finding things to write about that keep you fresh and your ideas flowing can be difficult. Writing exercises help open our minds and prod us to experiment, which in turn sharpens our skills as writers.
The joy of writing exercises is that there’s no one to please. You aren’t working on a deadline, you don’t have to please an editor, and you’re certainly not out to get paid. You’re just … writing, for the joy of writing.
Some authors begin every writing session with a 15-minute writing exercise to get their creative juices flowing. Other authors resort to writing exercises only when the muse fails them – the point is that regardless of how you do them, writing exercises will help you become a better author. If you can find a way of including specific exercises in your writing schedule, you can watch the improvements in your way with words grow almost by the day.
A good writing exercise is short, requiring nothing more than about 10-15 minutes of your time. To be most effective, they should stretch you to create something that is totally unrelated to the rest of your work – a little mini-vaction for your mind. These kinds of exercises let you explore new ways of seeing and expressing things.
So what kind of writing exercises can you work on?
Five Exercises for Writers
The goal of these exercises is not to come up with a great masterpiece. The goal is to simply get your pen moving, to increase your skills by just writing, and get your mind generating a constant supply of new ideas.
Never allow yourself to be a perfectionist when you’re working on an exercise. You can be imperfect – no one has to see these but yourself, so it’s not always a representation of your best work, but it is practice for when you need to write your best work.
1. Record five minutes of a radio talk show (or, if you can keep yourself from peeking at the screen, the audio from a television talk show). Replay the recording and write down the dialogue. Add narrative descriptions of the speakers and their actions as if you were writing a story. Try to use as much of the speaker’s grammar and “speaking style” as possible. Dialogue might look like, “When ya gonna do this, hmm?”. In other words, give it flavor by really showing who and what these speakers are all about in your mind.
2. Begin a diary. Not just any ordinary diary, though. No – this diary is going to be pure fiction. Start out by thinking of a character. This character might be a star in one of the stories you’re currently writing, or they might just appear for this exercise. Once you have an idea of who your character is, purchase a diary or journal that is exactly what the character would want to write in. Then, spend about 10 minutes every day writing in the diary. You’re writing about the character’s life, or their thoughts – “channel” your character and just flow with what they want to say.
3. Dig through your old short stories or find an old writing exercise. Scan it quickly to decide what viewpoint it’s written in, what tense, and other stylistic elements. Now, re-write the piece. While you re-write it, flip everything. If you’ve written it in first person, re-write in in third person. If you’ve been writing in past tense, re-write it in present tense. Try and see how many things you can juggle changing all at once, but don’t push yourself to the point that you stress out. Also, make sure that you do this exercise only with shorter works – if you start thinking about changing the tense of your latest book, for example, you’re going to spend years re-writing instead of creating.
4. Sit down in a familiar place with your notebook and pen. Take a quick look around you, and then start to describe the place you’re in. The trick is this: You cannot use one of your senses. For example, you can use your sense of smell, sound, touch, and taste – but not sight. You have 200 words in which to describe this place as clearly as if you did use the sense you’re not using. After you’ve gotten used to doing this exercise, try performing it in a place that you’re not familiar with.
5. Identify a very vivid memory that involves at least one other person. Really take a few minutes to remember what you can about this memory, writing down what details come to mind. Now, write this memory as a scene – not from your perspective, but from the point of view of another person involved in the memory. How do they see you? How does their experience of the memory differ from yours? This exercise will help you stretch your “voice” in writing by distancing you from your own perceptions.