Just like athletes, us scribblers have to keep our writing muscles warm and our creative energy flowing, if we are to perform at the peak of our powers. If you’ve had a long day at work, for example, it can be hard to get in the right mindset for writing. That’s when a little metaphorical jog around the park can be really useful, in the form of writing exercises.
The Write Yorkshire Scribble share some of their tried and tested warmups - no leg-warmers required!
Honestly, I don't have anything I do regularly, intentionally. I do, however, have two writing exercises I use to help overcome mini bouts of writer's block, or if I'm struggling to get my creativity going.
One of these is just to do some simple stream of consciousness writing. Best done with pen and paper, you give yourself a time limit (I usually go for 15 minutes) and just start writing whatever comes into your head. You can't edit what you've written during your designated writing time, you don't pre-plan and you definitely don't have any idea where it's going when you start. Occasionally, I'll pick a subject to help me get going. This could be something like food, flowers or water and I just see where my brain takes my writing. Sometimes this exercise just gets you writing and nothing you put down can actually be used, but I've also had some ideas spring from using this one. Either way, it can be a really useful tool to get your brain going!
The other one I use is called ekphrasis (defined by Oxford Languages as 'the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device'). For this, I'll select a picture or piece of art at random. It's important that, whatever you choose, you have no real context on, as you then write what you think it depicts, the story behind it or what the artist / photographer was thinking when they captured it. You essentially write your own context for it. This is one of my favourite activities, as it allows me to get incredibly creative and imagine characters and histories far beyond what's actually depicted.
Other than these two, I'll give any writing exercise that comes up a go, as you never know what may come from them! There's a whole host out there and different things work for different people, so there's no harm in trying as many as possible!
One of the most useful writing exercises I've done is the fifty word story. I don't necessarily use it as a warm up exercise but it really does sharpen your writing skills and, honestly, anything that gets words onto the page is a great getting started option.
Writing fifty word stories forces you to take a very surgical approach to storytelling. I always like to start with a focus word to build a micro narrative around (so Writetober is a great time to try this) and, grotesquely, I would let my friends volunteer to be murdered in fifty words and choose their own keyword.
This is a great exercise not only because it calls for a hyper focused narrative, but it also requires you to be very careful and deliberate with your language choices. You have a tiny space in which to tell a story, evoke an emotion, creep your reader out, make them laugh or paint a picture. It takes some skill and some practice to do this really well.
This gamification of writing really appeals to the obsessive competitor within (whom I normally keep locked away safely under the stairs), so it's easy to get started. I spent a good chunk of last winter writing fifty word stories and when I returned to long form, my structuring and language had tightened right up. I learned how to build a lot of impact into a very small space, which is seriously useful regardless of what form your writing usually takes.
Writing exercises are a great way to practice the craft and keep your pen and brain sharp.
I recently took part in a script writing workshop in which we were given a prompt. We had to have two characters. One sat in a chair and one who wanted to sit in the chair but couldn't outright ask for it. We had 10 minutes to write a scene and see how this could play out. This is an interesting way to flex your writing muscles. Using a prompt as well as a time limit forces you to be creative in a fresh and challenging way.
Another good writing practice that helps keep your mind creative and open is free-writing. I don't fully understand the "official" way to do this but I don't think it really matters as long as the essentials are the same. Basically, take a pen and some paper - you can type but I think that encourages re-reading and editing, so I leave computers out of it. You can start with a prompt word or an image or you can go in blank. Then you just write. Whatever comes to mind. You can set a time limit for yourself if you like or you can just write until there are no more words. This is a great way to practice the craft of writing in general, but it also helps with spontaneous thought, new ideas and writer's block.
Admittedly, I don't practice these exercises as often as I should. I guess it works in the same way that practicing any craft does. The more you do it, the better you get. I'm just not very good at forcing myself to do things. But I can attest to their value. Whenever I do try these methods I notice a boost in my creativity and inspiration. If you feel a bit stuck or a bit slow, give them a shot.
If I’m really stuck, and I have nothing at all on the boil, then I find that the best thing to do is to go out, buy a very swanky notebook, and start doing twenty minutes of automatic writing every morning, as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.
Ms Cameron recommends that every creative person should do this, in order to free up creativity and close down the critical voice, but I have to be realistic; there’s just no way that’s going to happen. However, if I’ve hit a prolonged barren spell, then twenty minutes’ free writing, completed before I do literally anything else at all; not worrying about whether it makes sense or not, just keeping the hand moving across the page, will usually yield some kind of inspiration, if I manage to stick to it for a week or two.
If nothing else, it makes me feel like a writer, and I find that being in the writerly mindset helps the brain be more open to letting ideas bubble through.
Writing exercises can be a really useful way to kick-start ideas, and I’ve been taught some fantastic ones over the years, in the context of writing classes. One favourite is to simply look out of the window and describe five things you can see in a way that will create a given atmosphere - sinister, melancholy, light-hearted... It sounds very pedestrian, but it forces you to really look, with a writer’s eye, and be discriminating about what you choose to zoom in on, and the vocabulary you employ in order to create a certain effect.
For example, if you were to look out of the window and see a child’s bicycle abandoned on someone’s drive, you would be able to create many contrasting scenarios, depending on whether you focus on the rusty chain, the streamers on the handlebars, the spinning back wheel...it’s up to you. Try describing the same scene two or three different ways; this will really stretch your descriptive powers.
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