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Writing Exercises

“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” – Kurt Vonnegut

If you want to be good at something, you need to practice. This goes for playing the guitar, learning a foreign language and, of course, writing fiction. Unless you are a genius who is brimming with natural talent and thus has nothing to learn (in which case, what are you doing wasting your time on this site… get writing and show the world what you’ve got!).

The most obvious way to practice writing is to write. But just splurging out words willy-nilly without any consideration of why you are writing what you are writing is unlikely to help you iron out any creases that (almost) inevitably exist. Being a prolific writer is one thing, but writing stories or poems that people want to read and which move them in some way is another thing entirely.

If you want a comprehensive toolkit of ways to improve as a writer, we can heartily recommend This Itch of Writing, a fantastically in-depth and useful website about the craft of writing created by the author and teacher Emma Darwin. She exudes wisdom when it comes to the written word and almost everything she suggests makes perfect sense as soon as you read it (so read it before you spend years writing your novel!).

Here though we’ll run through some (hopefully) useful exercises that will get your writing juices flowing. Whether you use them as a means to overcome writer’s block, or you want to hone your powers of description or your ability to create a believable new world or scene, these exercises will hopefully do the trick.

Quick Writing Exercises

Let’s start with a few exercises that should take something between five and 15 minutes to complete. Of course, you can do them as many times as you like (varying them as you see fit), but the exercises in this section are designed to be undertaken either before you start writing for the day (to get you in the mood) or during a break from writing, especially if you’ve wandered into something of a cul-de-sac.

Writing short fiction

Still Life

Pick a physical object you can see (and ideally smell, touch, hear and/or taste).

  • First describe the object in 10 words. Attempt to capture the essence of your object in just a few well-chosen words.
  • Now expand your description to up to 100 words, building on the essence and elaborating to include as much sensory or emotive information as you can.

How will this help my writing?

Good description is the foundation on which a large proportion of fiction is constructed. But good description is not necessarily about quantity, and getting the balance between too much and too little description in a story is not always easy. Sometimes you will be constrained by the number of words you are permitted (such as when entering writing competitions). But even when you’ve effectively got no such limits, such as when you’re writing a novel, you should still be wary of over-describing scenes or events or the reader may well get bogged down and, well, bored.

The above exercise gives you practice at producing snappy descriptions that bring the object in question to life in some way. While the second part allows you to go into more detail, this should be reserved for objects (or other things) that are particularly pertinent to your story. It might be fun to write 100 words about a coffee cup that is growing mould, and your description might be exceptionally good. But if it doesn’t have any true relevance to the story you are writing (or planning to write) it’s nothing more than a diversion.

Location, Location

This is similar to the above, but rather than an object, pick a location. Ideally a location you are thinking of using in a story or novel you are writing (or planning to write).

  • Pick a place with lots of people and activity like a bar, café or restaurant and take notes about the sights, smells, sounds, ambience and so on. Pick out the details that catch your attention or that stand out from what might be expected.
  • Visit a natural environment like a forest or a field and take notes on the details that make the location unique: the way the long grass moves in the breeze, the smells of fresh and rotting vegetation mingling, or the sounds of the birds.
  • Sit in a room in your home or at work that you don’t usually sit in. Sit still for a minute or two and notice what’s there. It’s surprising how many objects and images you usually take for granted and don’t really notice. The way light and shadow interact, the feel of the carpet, rug or floorboards on your feet, and all manner of other possibilities.

How will this help my writing?

Creating a sense of place in a story or novel is essential if you want the reader to imagine where the action is taking place. For this exercise, you should be physically in the location when you attempt it. It could work using a location from memory, but the idea is that you zoom into the details that might have disappeared from your memory or that you hadn’t noticed in the first place. We’re talking about the out-of-the-ordinary things that bring a scene to life and help the reader picture it.

Again, don’t pick things for the sake of it. Try to focus on the details that have some relevance or particular meaning (implied or literal) in relation to the story or the characters in the story. For instance, if you are describing a café scene from the point of view of an undercover detective investigating a murder, what details might they notice that another character might not (for instance, an elderly lady who has popped into the café for a cuppa).

Take A Breath

Not strictly a writing exercise, but it can be used by writers to overcome writer’s block or just to let new ideas flow.

  • Sit up straight, turn off your phone, remove any distractions, and breath. Count to four as you breathe in through your nose and four as you breathe out through your mouth. Repeat the process 10 times.
  • Listen to a guided meditation on an app like Insight Timer or Headspace, perhaps something of five to 10 minutes in length.

How will this help my writing?

In general, a stressed writer is a bad writer. Good ideas and free-flowing prose or poetry rarely inhabit a mind that is awash with anxiety. So taking a break, even for a few minutes, can be invaluable in recharging your creative juices. It also alleviates the pressure of having to produce words. Sitting with your eyes closed and simply breathing is one of the least challenging tasks there is. The challenge comes in having the will to turn off the myriad of distractions that otherwise distract our attention.

Hopefully after even a short meditation or relaxing break, you will feel rejuvenated and ready to get stuck into your writing. Your mind will almost certainly drift during even short periods of meditation but hopefully the thoughts or ideas that pop up can be utilised in your story or poem. But if not, let them drift away and refocus on your breath.

More Thorough Writing Exercises

Here we present a few writing exercises that are designed to help you really flex your writing muscles. We would expect these will take somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour, though there are no time limits here, just go with the flow.

Writing exercises - beating writer's blocl

Eavesdropping

Okay, this is a little sneaky, but as long as you are not recording anyone and you’re in a public place, it’s fair game.

  • Visit a café and sit within earshot of a couple or a group of friends. Write down what they say (don’t make it too obvious though!)
  • As above but on public transport.
  • An adaption is to listen (and write down) just half a conversation, such as when someone’s on the phone and you can only hear one voice. Leave spaces for the other person and then make up what they might have said in the gaps.

How will this help my writing?

Writing realistic, natural dialogue can prove a particularly troublesome task for many writers and, like many aspects of effective fiction writing, the aim is to strike the right balance. In this case, you should find the sweet spot that lies between “natural” dialogue (like that you will have noted down above) and wooden or unnatural dialogue. If you wrote dialogue as it is spoken in real life, it would – in many cases – be almost unreadable with so many pauses, interruptions, filler words (ums and ahs, for example), and sometimes quite erratic and hard-to-follow speech patterns.

On the other hand, if you write dialogue that sticks perfectly to the conventions of written English, it will come across as staid and dull. As such, you should attempt to include some elements of natural speech, including idiosyncratic speech patterns or language use, but use such elements relatively sparingly. This will give the illusion of being natural and will include interesting and engaging elements without the disunity and chaotic nature of the real thing.

Dream Diary

Keep a notepad next to your bed and as soon as you wake up, write down as much detail as you can remember about what you dreamed. If you can’t remember anything, simply let your mind flow and write whatever comes into your mind.

  • Keep a dream diary for a week or more and then review it, picking out any potential ideas, images, scenes or characters that could be developed for a story or poem.
  • Alternatively, record your dream(s) as soon as you wake and then immediately attempt to construct a poem or flash fiction story from the material.

How will this help my writing?

Some of the greatest ideas (indeed arguably all) emerge from our unconscious or subconscious minds and one of the best ways to tap into this endless source is by recording your dreams. As well as potentially improving your creative flow, tapping into your dreams and your active imagination can also potentially help with aspects of personal development. If this is something you are interested in, check out Robert A. Johnson’s book, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth.

Many people find that once they begin recording dreams, they tend to dream more frequently with more vivid and interesting imagery. Often the dreams will appear to make little sense, though many psychologists and psychoanalysts (including most famously Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung) have written extensively about the meaning of dreams. In relation to writing and other creative work, analysing one’s dreams is a way to let ideas form and germinate without it being a painstaking or pressurised process. You simply discover what emerges from your unconscious and use it as a starting point for your next piece of writing.

Know Thy Characters

How well do you know your characters? Hopefully well enough to get under their skin and into their psyche. This is more of a practical than creative task and involves picking a character from your story or novel (ideally the protagonist) and assigning them a personality type. Alternatively, if your character is already “alive” or well-developed, it might be a case of working out their personality type.

  • Do a little research on personality types, such as on the 16personalities.com site. Pick or work out the personality type that best matches your character.
  • Take the personality test at the site mentioned (or at another site) and answer the questions from the point of view of your character. The results should give you a good insight into how they might react in certain situations and will often alert you to potential reactions that you hadn’t considered.
  • If you find this process useful, repeat it with other characters in your story or novel.

How will this help my writing?

We’ll go into a lot more detail about character craft in dedicated articles on the subject. But of course, (almost) any story worth its salt has to have characters that are interesting, believable and that readers feel something about (whether good or ill). By either assigning personality types or seeing which types fit best to your characters, you are helping to create well-rounded and believable personas.

Note that personality types are not set in stone even within a single character though. People often exhibit very different personality traits when faced with different situations or challenges. It is likely that there might be a default or typical personality type, however. Though as the writer, ultimately that’s up to you.

When you repeat the process to figure out the personality types of different characters in your story or novel, ideally they will not all have the same personality types. If they do, you might consider changing some of their behaviours, beliefs and traits to add a little variety. After all, even within a small family unit that has many shared experiences, personality types tend to vary markedly. It also makes for more dramatic tension and conflict if characters have different (and potentially opposing) personality traits.

Once you understand the personality of your character, it’s your job as the writer to communicate that to the reader. As Will Storr states in his excellent book The Science of Storytelling:

Storytellers can show the personality of their characters in almost everything they do: it’s in their thoughts, dialogue, social behaviours, memories, desires and sadnesses. It’s in how they behave in traffic jams, what they think of Christmas and how they react to a bee.

Ultimately, understanding the personality of your characters allows you to understand why they do what you make them do. And thus you can more readily understand when they are doing something that is literally “out of character” (which is fine, as long as there’s a reason for that too).

Three Opening Lines

As we show in our article on the best first lines of novels, fantastic opening lines come in a wide range of styles.

In this exercise you need to write three first lines of a story or poem (i.e. each line should be for the same story or poem) but alter the style of each, based on the following:

  • A short description of the scene in which the story begins. [For example: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien]
  • A dramatic, in-your-face opening line that shocks or excites the reader (or attempts to). [For example: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The Crow Road by Iain Banks]
  • A statement that appears illogical or particularly surprising and hence draws the reader in. [For example: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell]

How will this help my writing?

Opening lines can be notoriously tough to get “right” (if such a thing exists), but without a first line you can’t have a story, novel or poem. If you have an idea for a poem or some form of story or book, using the above exercise can help you approach the first line from slightly different angles. The idea would then be to decide which of the three first lines you think works best for your work.

We wouldn’t recommend producing three lines for every line in your poem or story, of course. But thinking about the opening line and the impact you want it to have on the reader is particularly important. Essentially you want them to read on and ideally you want them to want or even need to read on. So rather than choosing a benign or clichéd opening line such as (for example, “It was a stormy night and the castle on the hill was dark and mysterious.”) you might opt for something that packs a little more punch (for example, “The first time I got struck by lightning hurt like hell.”)

Person, Place, Problem

This can be used as a quickfire exercise or you can extend it into something more in-depth. The idea is that you invent basic details of a character (person), where that person is (place) and some challenging situation they face (problem). Then once you have those three things, use them to devise the plot or very basic premise for a story.

It’s up to you whether you do one, three or 10 of these, but each could be the starting point of a story, poem or even a novel. Note that the person doesn’t need to be a human, the place could be more of a situation or mental state than a physical location and the problem doesn’t have to be something negative.

Here are some ideas and examples to get your started:

Terry’s Done A Runner
  • Person – Terry – an old man in his 80s with dementia.
  • Place – A rundown care home on the outskirts of Hull.
  • Problem – Terry despises the bland food at the care home and pines for a bacon butty at his favourite greasy spoon cafe.
  • Story – The story tells of Terry’s great escape from the care home and the adventures and challenges he overcomes in his quest for the greatest bacon butty of his life.
Daisy’s Days Are Numbered
  • Person – Daisy – a young rabbit with a penchant for adventure.
  • Place – The Thousand-Acre Wood, an idyllic forest in rural England.
  • Problem – While seeking dandelions, Daisy stumbles across a cave. She goes in, slips and falls into the depths and is washed away down an underground river..
  • Story – The story of how Daisy discovers a new underground world of wonder, inhabited by trolls and pixies, and her endeavours to find her way home.
Olives On The Hill
  • Person – An olive tree that has lived for a thousand years.
  • Place – A hill overlooking Athens.
  • Problem – The local council want to cut the tree down to erect a mobile phone mast.
  • Story – Told from the point of view of the tree through flashbacks, the history of Athens is summarised and satirised as the disdainful olive tree puts the boot into humanity from her perch on the hill.

How will this help my writing?

When seeking inspiration, writers sometimes try to create a whole story in one go. But this is not an easy thing to achieve and it is far better to break things down into a few constituent parts, i.e. who, where, what… person, place, problem. Anyone can think of a person or a place and then a problem often just pops up like a jack in the box from your unconscious.

Not all the ideas you come up with will be good or even interesting but if you do this exercise every time you are running short of inspiration, it is likely you’ll find the basis of a story there somewhere. And once you have the main premise, you can get to the fun part and write the thing!

Writing Exercises: Conclusions

We’ve given a deliberately small number of writing exercises for you to try out, but there are loads to be found around the internet and in books for writers. There are some particularly thought-provoking exercises to be found in Ursula K Le Guin’s brilliant Steering the Craft, and there are more than 100 exercises on the Reedsy website.

You can also create your own writing exercises as you figure out the things that work for you, the things that inspire you to come up with ideas that excite you (and hopefully your future readers) and that give you the belief and confidence to write your story.