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Has your creativity been hibernating lately? Most days I do some form of writing, whether it’s a blog post, an email to my list, or a sales letter. Creativity, though, is rarely the main objective. Even when I’m working on my fiction, which is supposed to be creative, it often feels like I’m going through the motions: sprinkle in a description here, some conflict there. Creative writing exercises can be an effective tool for rediscovering that spark. While you can find lots of free prompts online, I’ve found books help you really dig deep. The best writing exercise books have a precise purpose behind each prompt, whether it’s to eliminate overused adjectives, avoid cliches, or take your dialogue to unexpected places.
Now, when I say writing exercises, I’m not talking about the generic ones like, “Write about your happiest memory.” Over the years, I’ve found some truly inventive ones that have catapulted my writing into new dimensions. They’re also lots of fun!
Exercises aren’t just for fiction writers, either. If you’re a blogger or copywriter, they can help liven up your writing and set you apart from others in your niche.
How Exercises Make You a Better Writer
1. Be more original
When we first start writing, we mimic authors we admire. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a great way to learn the craft is to copy a page from your favorite writer word-for-word (just don’t publish it under your name!). Or if you’re feeling uninspired, you might leaf through a book on your shelf to get in the mood.
But at a certain point, you must develop your own voice. Otherwise, you end up with a whole genre of books that sound like watered-down Hemingway or Steinbeck or (fill in the blank).
One way exercises help us find our voice is through sheer practice. Just as physical exercise builds muscle tone and chisels away at our body fat, writing exercises help us to refine our craft, peeling away the lazy metaphors and uninspired descriptions to reveal the crisp phrases and evocative imagery underneath — the writing we are all capable of.
Additionally, because exercises provide you with a prompt to work with, you’re naturally more inclined to rely on your own writerly devices as a source of fuel.
2. Step outside of yourself
Many writers, whether directly or indirectly, write about their own experiences. Writing about real life can certainly lend an authenticity to your voice. And if you’ve got a great story to tell, by all means tell it! In fact, one of my favorite books of all time, Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan, is so raw and vivid precisely because of its autobiographical qualities.
But your writing shouldn’t read like a diary entry, either. Writing to strangers isn’t like telling like an inside joke to your best friend. You can’t assume your readers are going to find your story entertaining or moving just because it happened to you.
In order to realistically understand others and inhabit their world, whether these be fictional characters or your readers (if you’re a blogger/copywriter), you need to step outside of yourself. And this is where writing exercises come in handy.
3. Stop censoring yourself
We all have blockages. For instance, I grew up in a small town and have always avoided using the names of old classmates — even those I barely knew — for fear they’ll think I’m writing about them. Of course, many of us are hesitant to write about sex or violence or anything dark because we worry what our friends and family will think of us.
But these blockages can also occur on a subconscious level. In The 3 A.M. Epiphany (more on that below), author Brian Kiteley explains how even the great Donald Barthelme, at the height of his writing career, feared criticism from his father. He’d dream of his father hitting him over the head with his books, telling him to “get a real job.”
Exercises can help us to break out of self-censorship mode because we are drawing from a depository outside of our usual collection of memories and associations.
4. Get out of your comfort zone
If you’re a fiction writer, this could mean exploring new genres. If you write nonfiction, this might mean writing in a different niche or simply trying out a new voice.
When I competed in the NYC Midnight Writing Challenge, which randomly assigns you a character, setting, and genre, I was assigned a comedy and given only three days to complete the story. This didn’t come naturally to me at all. But I got some help from my boyfriend, who encouraged me to watch I Love Lucy episodes.
In the process, I learned techniques that could be applied to the horror novel that I was working on. Really, any genre could benefit from more comedic elements, but in horror it’s particularly valuable as it provides relief from the tension.
5. Beat writer’s block
Obviously, exercises cure blank page syndrome because they give you something to write about. Of course, you still have to get from Point A to Point B. But that’s where timers (10-20 minutes seems to be a good baseline, depending on the complexity of the exercise) and a group come in handy. Knowing that you’re going to share what you wrote with a group helps keep you accountable, and, from my own experience, elevates the quality of my writing immensely.
There’s something magical and super inspiring about writing in a timed setting and then sharing your writing with others. Normally for me, writing (as much as I love it) is a labor intensive process and everything seems to take quadruple the time I anticipated. In these group writing exercises, though, I’m always amazed by what my fellow writers and I can pull out of us in such a short period of time, given all the constraints.
Interestingly, constraints actually free up your mind in a way. Whereas normally you’d be racking your brain trying to come up with a storyline and characters, exercises take care of that part for you, giving you more time to work on the fun stuff — the details!
6. Be more playful
When I do writing exercises with my students — mostly in the 10-12 age range — they leave me in the dust every time.
It’s often said that children are naturally more creative than adults. Why?
Because they aren’t afraid to sound ridiculous, and they’re not under the illusion that they have say something.
I remember the first “real” short story I wrote (the stories about talking animals didn’t count). It was a hybrid of Joseph Conrad and Kurt Vonnegut. The title was, “There Are No Smoothies in Murinosa.” I was very proud of it. On the last day of 12th grade English, we passed around our stories to share with the rest of the class. I expectantly gaged others’ reactions as they picked up my story, waiting for them to tell me how brilliant it was.
To my dismay, each of my classmates set my story aside before finishing the first page. “Too deep,” was one of their replies.
I reassured myself that they were too immature to appreciate my profundity. But looking back on it later, I realized “too deep” was a euphemism. In truth, it was boring as all hell.
The stories I wrote in my first writing workshop were similarly overwrought. I was trying so hard to make a profound statement that I ended up saying nothing at all.
It wasn’t until I took Aimee Bender’s writing workshop that I learned to loosen up. Her exercises thrived on randomness, like “pick up a green book on your shelf, turn to page 4, and the fourth sentence on that page is the first sentence of your story.”
My style became much more relaxed as a result of these exercises. While I’m not in love with every story I wrote, each one represented a move in the right direction.
And this brings up an important point about writing exercises. Not all of them are necessarily going to be publishable material. However, each one will help to unlock qualities that had previously been latent.
My Recommendations for the Best Writing Exercise Books
1. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
This book is far from a run-of-the-mill manual on how to write fiction. With an abundance of stimulating illustrations, all I have to do is flip through the pages to get that jolt of inspiration I need to begin a new writing project or power through a difficult one. It’s more than a collection of pretty pictures, though. Each illustration has a precise instructive purpose.
The above illustration, for instance, shows how inspiration is a convergence of many factors, both internal and external. In addition to detailed instructional art on narrative design, world building, and characterization, the book also includes essays by Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Karen Joy Fowler.
One series of exercises, called “Cannibalism & Constraint,” involves chopping up the work of another writer to gain inspiration. For instance, you could
“retype the passage from memory alone. Try to recreate its vividness using your own words. Compare the original to yours. What better choices did you make? What choices seem worse?” This is a great way to inhabit the mind of the author and absorb some of his decisions!
You can get it on Amazon below.
2. The 3 A.M. Epiphany
What I love about this book is that the exercises are divided into categories, allowing you to finetune your craft. These include point of view, images, internal structure, and stories in progress. For each category, author Brian Kiteley provides an explanation of the category and its purpose. In the chapter on internal structure, for instance, he writes, “These exercises should help you to break with the tired idea of linear progression.”
My favorite exercise to do when I’m having trouble finishing a story is called “Outrunning the Critic:” “Write one hundred short sentences about a character in a piece of fiction. Don’t lift your pen from paper (or fingers from keyboard) for one hundred sentences (then go back exactly twenty-four hours later and revise). The sentences should not connect; nor do they need to follow one another logically. This exercise forces you to outrun your own thoughts, intelligence, and critical mind.”
This exercise has done wonders for my short stories and even novels!
You can get it on Amazon below.
3. Naming the World
This book, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, features a treasure trove of prompts from Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Almond, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, among others. Each writer provides the story that inspired his/her prompt. The book is divided into larger categories such as character, plot, and setting. The titles of the exercises have intriguing names like “Bullies I Have Known,” “Your Five Seconds of Shame!”, and “Destroying What You Love,” making you eager to dive into them.
One of my favorites, called “Thickening the Plot,” comes from Jacob M. Appel. It involves selecting a small group of people and having them describe “the strangest thing that has ever happened to them.” Next, you write another paragraph about what these strange events have in common. Finally, you write a short story incorporating these elements. The goal of the exercise is to find connections between seemingly random events or people.
You can get it on Amazon below.
This book is great for the classroom. Not only do the typical classroom writing prompts (“write about a time when you felt left out”) get a bit stale, but it can be uncomfortable for adolescents to write about personal experiences. Plus, I’ll always get the inevitable, “But that’s never happened to me.”
But I use the Unjournaling exercises with my students, and they’re always a hit! They may not be as in-depth as the exercises in the other books, but they still encourage you to stretch your craft.
Here are some of my favorites:
“Describe the gunky stuff that gets caught in the basket at the bottom of the sink. Don’t use the words disgusting or gross.”
“Chris walks into a room. By describing only the reactions of the others in the room, let us know something about him.”
“Some people can’t smell. In one paragraph, make them understand ‘skunk.'”
I can tell my students over and over not to describe everything as “good” or “nice,” and it all goes in one ear and out the other. But these exercises naturally get them to express themselves in more inventive ways.
Plus, us adults can get lazy with our words, too. These prompts challenge us to think outside the box. When I do them with my students, I often get stumped!
You can get it on Amazon below.
5. Now Write!
Like Naming the World, Now Write! is a collection of exercises offered by a variety of respected authors and divided into categories. Featured authors include Jill McCorkle, Robert Olen Butler, and Amy Bloom. The main difference is that the explanations preceding the exercises are less in-depth, so if you’re ready to start writing immediately (true to the title), this is the book for you. Also, it’s great to have a back-up when you finish the exercises in the other books!
One exercise I’ve found particularly effective is David Michael Kaplan’s “Smushing Seed Ideas Together.” It involves taking three seeds — “things you’ve overhead, seen, been told, have happened to you, whatever” — and weaving them into a narrative. He advises you to avoid vague, abstract ideas like “man in a moral quandary.” This exercise helped me overcome the problems that plagued my early fiction and evolve as a writer.
You can get it on Amazon below.
Tell me–what is your favorite writing exercise or book of exercises?