Workouts for writers
Sometimes a writer needs to exercise his or her talents. Usually this is in response to writer’s block, a condition we previously addressed. Even when not working on a specific project, it is a good idea to keep writing on a regular basis.
There are books filled with writing exercises. Unfortunately, most of the exercises are lousy — and that is generous. Fun or entertaining exercises are not necessarily useful. Good writing exercises share the following traits:
- There is a clear purpose, such as improving the writing of dialogue.
- The exercise and the results are meaningful.
- There is an objective measure of completion or even success.
- The exercise is ability and experience appropriate.
- There is “room to grow” when repeating the exercise and comparing past results.
Ask yourself some questions before you begin an exercise. These questions allow you to evaluate the exercise based upon the criteria for a good exercise.
- What skill will I be exercising?
- What will I create and can I apply the results directly or indirectly to my writing projects?
- How will I know when I am finished? Can I determine if the results are good?
- Can I really do this without feeling frustrated?
- Would I want to repeat this exercise?
Exercises (Almost A to Z)
The following exercises include what might be publishable projects. As exercies, though, each should be kept brief. The goal is to write daily.
Advertisements - Mock advertisements teach the discipline required to mimic and original, with a touch of satire. Rewriting jingles is particularly entertaining. Ads for things that normally are not promoted are excellent fun to compose.
Blogs - The vast majority of blogs are ghosts, abandoned after only a few enthusiastic posts. If you want and need reader responses, the blog is no longer an exercise. Try blogging for yourself, using the blog as a place to “freewrite” on a regular basis. The nice thing about blogs is that you can access the archives from anywhere, like a virtual notebook.
Book Reviews - There are several book-centric, literary blogs. Writing about books is a great way to learn about writing. Book reviews expose your preferences, including ones you might not have recognized. The goal is to discover what makes a successful book, at least one that succeeds with you as the reader. While trying to be as in-depth as possible, also limit your word count. Book reviews in major publications range from 2000 to 4000 words, while newspapers often limit reviews to 1000 words or less. Addressing style, character, story, plot, and other issues in 1000 words is difficult.
Character Charts - Creating characters, using charts or prose, is a great way to focus on the details that make characters believable. Even if a story does not use every trait or biographical aspect of a character, the more you know about the character the more realistic he or she seems to readers. (See our guide to characters.)
Diary Entries - As with blogs, many people start diaries and keep to a routine for a few weeks or months before letting the dust gather. It is important to maintain a routine as a diarist. The problem with diaries is that most of us don’t think our lives are interesting. A “fictional diary” is an alternative approach.
Dream Logs - If you recall dreams — not everyone does — try writing them down in as much detail as possible. The stranger the dream, the more fascinating the writing. If nothing else, dreams can be surreal.
Essays - Composing short essays weekly, or more frequently, not only helps hone prose but can also help create a stack of publication-ready works. Try limiting essays to 1000 words, coming as close to that count as possible. A thousand words seems like a lot when you start, but eventually the challenge is restraint.
Fantasies - No, we don’t mean fantasies of the “mature audiences” variety. Fantasy exercises are about fantastic (as in amazing) events that are highly improbable, but fun to consider. How would you spend $1 million? What if the president of the United States showed up for dinner at your house? The more amazing, the better. Improv comedy works on the same theory: assume nothing is impossible, no matter how strange or silly.
Film Critiques - Who doesn’t have an opinion about movies? Writing film critiques, which has blog potential, should lead you to consider characters, plots, themes, and the of visual motifs. A film critique is similar to a book review, though because films are more collaborative you must discuss everything from the acting to the script. Even cinematography can ruin a good script with decent acting. Rarely does cover design ruin a book.
Fortune Cookies - Trying to think of original fortune cookie sayings is much harder than it sounds.
Fractured Fairy Tales - Jay Ward made Fractured Fairy Tales famous, and Politically Correct Fairy Tales are a sign of the times. Rewriting a fairy tale, legend, or fable requires discipline: you need to honor the original, while creating satire. The success of the Shrek movies is an example of what is possible.
Freewriting - The practice of freewriting is a common teaching strategy. Freewriting is supposed to be done quickly, without editing, as a stream-of-conscious response to a question or statement. There are books and websites with daily writing prompts for freewriting.
Greeting Cards - Younger students, in particular, enjoy creating greeting cards. Desktop publishing software, such as Print Explosion, PrintShop and Microsoft Publisher, makes creating a card simple. There are also websites dedicated to creating “e-cards” in place of traditional paper cards.
How-To Articles - Everything from group newsletters to local newspapers can use how-to articles. If you have a special interest, there is probably a group for people just like you. Writing how-to articles for clubs and organizations is a volunteer task, but the writing practice is invaluable. Plus, these articles can become “clips” in a portfolio when you are looking for paying work.
Interviews - Learning to conduct interviews helps a writer identify the questions readers might have. Relying on a set of prepared questions can result in missed follow-up questions. Even if you write fiction, knowing what is interesting about a person — or character — is essential. Interviews can be pitched to newsletters, newspapers, and websites.
Jingles - Nothing beats mocking the advertising industry. Create a jingle for something without good public relations, like asparagus or rhubarb.
Jokes - Humor is difficult, and great comedy is nearly impossible. Writing jokes is a good way to exercise your creativity. Keep a record of jokes and you can group similar ones together into stand-up routines. The best writers aren’t always the best at live delivery, though.
Journals (Work/Travel/Personal) - Journals are like diaries, but usually a journal is limited to a specific event or topic. For example, a travel journal might only offer observations on places and cultures. These journals usually are not deeply personal, but instead offer general observations.
Letters - The art of letter writing has been in decline for decades. Why not surprise someone with a real letter, written on stationery? The act of writing a letter seems more personal and results in careful prose. While mailing a letter is not free, the cost remains minimal and the thanks you will receive offset any expense.
Monologues - Monologues might be considered extremely short one-character plays. As writing exercises, monologues should be under five minutes. The goal is to tell a story or convey the nature of a character as efficiently as possible.
Newsletters - Clubs, organizations, and companies all like newsletters. Though some of these are moving online or being distributed via email, someone still has to write the content. In fact, electronic newsletters often feature more content, not less, since there is no printing expense. Volunteering to write a newsletter offers steady practice writing.
Overheard - The best dialogue in the world is often overheard. Out of context, snippets heard by writers give birth to colorful exchanges. Do a search on the Web for “overheard” and you’ll locate several sites dedicated to the strange statements people overhear. Record something you hear and try to write a short scene around the statement.
Poems - Great poetry is difficult to compose, but short poems can be fun experiments. Writing a short poem or two a week is excellent exercise, since poetry tends to make use of figurative language and word patterns.
Predictions - Similar to the fortune cookie exercise, the idea is to have fun with predictions. Don’t try to be serious when you write the predictions. Vague predictions are more likely to come true: “A boring movie will win several awards this year.”
Quotes - There are several variations to writing quotes as an exercise. Some texts suggest creating quotes that might have been, but weren’t said by famous fictional characters. Another variation is to compose “improved” versions of famous quotes.
Riddles - Riddles often rely on puns or other quirks of language. Writing riddles is a good way to exercise your vocabulary and knowledge of idioms.
[Really] Short Stories - There are collections, such as One Hundred 100-Word Stories, that prove you can tell a good story in two pages. Similar books are Two-Minute Mysteries and Love in 100 Words. Being concise is a challenge for many writers — which is why we need editors. Really short stories are excellent discipline.
Skits - Skits and really short plays are good exercises, especially because good scenes can be incorporated into longer works. For exercises, though, the goal is to write short, two to four page scenes — nothing longer. A short skit might never leave the page; the goal is exercise, not perfection.
Slogans - As with jingles, the goal is to develop humorous slogans for people or things that might not normally have slogans.
Timed Writings - Timed writings are freewriting exercises with five or ten-minute limits. One common version is to select a random word and then use it as your main topic. A “word of the day” calendar or website is a good starting point.
Tongue Twisters - It definitely expands the vocabulary to write tongue twisters. You can start with a basic sentence and then use a thesaurus to swap out words. Few things are as valuable to a writer as a voluminous vocabulary.
Translations - Humorous translations are a popular fixture in satire, from The Devil’s Dictionary to Mad Magazine. Popular versions are “He Said/She Heard” (and vice-versa) and “What a Politicians Says, What a Politician Means.” You can see the potential variations. Almost any profession or group can be translated.
Word Walls - Word walls have been replaced by magnetic poetry, usually in the form of refrigerator magnets. As long as you don’t live alone, it is fun to add lines to such poems as you pass through the kitchen. Word walls are “pocket charts” with words and phrases on cards, rearranged to write poems or prose. Some word walls are “felt boards” used in classrooms.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Christ, Henry I. Modern English in Action, Ten. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co, 1965.
Corbett, Edward P. J., Nancy Myers, and Gary Tate. The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. (ISBN: 0195123778)
Wysocki, Anne Frances. Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2004. (ISBN: 0874215757)