Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes growth as a writer can feel so elusive, so out of our control. One week you’re churning out new and brilliant material, and the next your prose feels trite and tired. When those uninspired seasons stretch on, things can get very discouraging, and writing can feel more like a chore than a craft.
One way to navigate those times productively is to try out a new writing exercise. Shake things up a bit. Stretch your muscles. See what can emerge with a little out-of-the-box creative work.
Here are a few exercises to get you started. Even if you’re not in a funk, these activities are great to add to your writer’s toolbox.
So, pick one and give it a try!
1. Copy a passage you’d like to emulate
Certain authors simply captivate us. They have that “It Factor” that we can’t quite put our finger on. Though that can feel intimidating, it can also be useful if we let it. Pick it apart, see what makes it so amazing, so skillfully done. One simple way of doing that is to choose a passage that really wows you and type it or write it out.
Here’s a suggested step-by-step method:
Step 1: Turn to your chosen passage and set the book beside you.
Step 2: Switch your brain off. No analyzing, no self-deprecation, no pity party, no hero worship allowed.
Step 3: Start typing, let the words flow into your eyes, fill your mind, and watch as they come out onto the page as if you are writing them.
Step 4: When you’re done, sit back and look at what you’ve “written”.
Step 5: Now you’re allowed to do the work of analysis.
Once you’ve finished the exercise, take stock of how you feel. As you were typing the words, did they seem particularly amazing? Were the techniques of the passage revolutionary? Did the prose unlock any secrets for you? Sometimes the answer is yes, but equally as often, you’ll find that the author is employing tools you already possess, but maybe in ways you hadn’t previously imagined. The point here is not plagiarism, of course, it’s an exercise to let you step into someone else’s skilled writing shoes for a moment. When you return to your own shoes, start writing again, see if you don’t feel a fresh wind at your back.
2. Write from a prompt
If you’ve always written from the wide-open spaces of your own creative mind, take a break and try using a prompt. This has the effect of limiting your scope, narrowing your options, giving your story a framework, albeit a loose one.
You can do this one in just three easy steps.
Step 1: Pick a prompt.
Here are some places and ideas for finding an inspiring image, phrase, or list of unrelated words to get a prompt (Note: Please be mindful of copyright issues when using some else’s work for inspiration):
- Online art collections like deviantART, Society6, Eyestorm, or just a good old-fashioned Google image search
- Podcasts (Podcast Directory, iTunes podcast store, or Google Play’s BeyondPod), sound clips (SoundCloud), news stories, or music
- First line generator (http://writingexercises.co.uk/firstlinegenerator.php) or a word list generator (http://creativitygames.net/random-word-generator/randomwords)
Step 2: Collect some ideas. If a story concept popped into your head the moment you found your prompt, then proceed to Step 3. But if you’re still not sure what to do, try this: Sit with your prompt a while. Look at it, read it silently, say it out loud, let it fill your imagination. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, feel? Does it stir up any associations? Write all this down. Brainstorm. Follow a few leads. Is something starting to emerge?
Step 3: Write your story!
Just a quick note here: you can use this prompt in so many different ways. Your story can use as much or as little of the actual prompt as you want. You’ll be surprised how putting restrictions on your writing can actually bolster your creativity. Give it a go!
3. Write for a different length
Every genre, writing style, and story type comes with its own expectations and characteristics. If you’ve stuck to writing one or two types of stories, you should try another style at least once; it’s very eye opening.
For instance, if you’ve only ever written novels, you’ve had the luxury of space. What if you wrote a short story? You’d see what it takes to fit all those elements of story—that you had hundreds of pages to develop—into a cohesive and self-contained narrative in only a few thousand words. You’ll be astonished at how much you can say in a short amount of time, the decisions you’re forced to make about what is and is not essential, and the challenge of truly making every word count. Here’s one simple method to get you started.
Step 1: Do some basic research about the conventions of your chosen story type (novella, short story, flash fiction). Read a few examples, identify commonalities, get a feel for the structure.
Step 2: Decide what you want to write about, use a prompt if you need one.
Step 3: If you’re not quite sure how to start, try plotting it out.
Step 4: Write your story!
We all have our pet favorites in writing, but if you’ll step out and try something new, you’re guaranteed to gain new skills and, who knows, you might actually like it!
4. Try an alternate POV
Similar to the exercise above is writing from an alternate point of view. Many authors limit themselves to using one or two types of POV in all their stories. That’s okay, of course, because POV should be intentional and serve the needs of the story and its characters. However, it’s POV more than anything else that informs the way the writer views and constructs and interacts with the story they’re writing. Writing from a different point of view will change the way you approach dialogue, show character emotion, reveal or withhold essential story details, and ultimately how you involve the reader in the journey of that story.
For this exercise, try rewriting one of your own short stories or a passage from a longer piece using a different POV.
Step 1: Choose a story or passage to work with. It’s easier if you can use something particularly emotional or dramatic, because it will heighten the difference of switching POV.
Step 3: Take some time to immerse yourself in this new POV. What changes does it require? What new angles, information, emotions does it give you and/or your characters?
Step 4: Plot, plan, sketch if you wish.
Step 5: Write your new scene!
How did this exercise make you think differently about your story? Did you like it or not? What new insights will you take with you from the experience?
I hope these exercises will be illuminating for you. Whether you’re struggling to pull yourself out of a rut or just looking to take your craft to another level, these activities are guaranteed to stretch you out of your creative comfort zone.
Which of these have you tried? What did you learn that surprised you most? Do you have another exercise to share with us? Tell us about it in the comments.