Ever sit down to write and come up empty? Out of story ideas, article ideas? Ever sit down to write with a deadline looming and even that doesn’t seem to scare the creative impulse into action to give you the words and ideas you need to write?
Some of my teachers suggested writing exercises. Let me say this about that: Ugh. I found all of the writing exercises a little silly. And so I stopped referencing writing books and all those creative writing prompt sites for writers and just got to the business of writing. Oh, so serious me.
Not too long ago, when I got stuck, I got curious about the state of writing exercises. I googled the term writing exercises for adults and received 756,000 results in 0.22 seconds. (Note the new verb, googled).
Still lots of silly exercises. And some to put at the back of my mind to think about, such as one called blackout: you take the newspaper or a magazine and you circle some words and then you blackout the words you didn’t circle and there you have the start of something, maybe a poem, or a sentence that forms the germ of an idea that you can dive into. You can see lots of examples of this exercise on tumblr.
Because I have this reverence for words it seems blasphemous to scribble all over a publication, but a little while ago, I was given three magazines to read, which I dutifully read and found there was not one thing in any of them that I liked, but I couldn’t bring myself to toss them out. I didn’t know anyone who’d like them either, so they’ve been sitting gathering dust. But then I got into a cleaning mode, which left those three magazines on the counter about to get thrown out.
Then, as I was staring at them willing myself to pick them up and toss them in the recycling bin, I suddenly remembered the blackout exercise. I thought I’d give it a go, see what came of it. You know what? It was a lot of fun. You know what else? After I did it, I dove right in to my real writing work and finished it.
Shall I share the outcome of the exercise with you?
It was a scandal only in translation; that
carelessly mangled version
that did so much to disappoint.
to point a way out or
to be faithful reveals the impossible;
systematic choices create a sort of damaged ability to be clear,
to see any difference between natural or socially constructed terms.
It was fun and the results are silly, but what the exercise did do was prime my mind and get me writing what I needed to get writing about. I still feel a bit of guilt about defacing a magazine, but I might get over that in time and with practice. I had fun with this exercise.
Other exercises that help me?
- Writing what I have to write about; doing the work of writing.
- Asking a friend to give me something to write about and setting a deadline.
- Looking at images — out in the world, at a gallery, on the internet.
- Reading for a half an hour before I start writing.
- Research subjects that are of interest, or are topical.
- Cafes; eavesdropping and using a sentence overheard as a jumping off point to writing.
- Morning pages: this is not a writing practice per se. Some people describe this exercise as a mental shower. I have found it useful for everything, including keeping my mind clear for writing.
So yes; I have changed my mind somewhat about the value of writing exercises and see it as a device, a helpful tool at certain times.
With all of the thousands of exercises that might prompt you to write, it’s still possible that nothing moves you to write as ‘just’ an exercise, which is a shame because the best way to become a writer is to write a lot and to try different ways of writing, to write about different things, even things you might typically never write about.
Good and great writing across all genres is all about the story, and about moving readers from your beginning, through the middle and to the ending, whether it’s a brief newspaper piece, an essay, a research paper, a feature article or a novel.
Practice writing using the set exercises is one part of the equation. The other part is finding someone to give you constructive feedback: someone who reads, someone who can tell you candidly what works, what doesn’t work; what you need to strengthen in your writing: dialogue? character? plot? story? word usage? grammar? It’s up to you whether you take the feedback, but if you want readers, it’s helpful to get feedback from a reader you know, and who you trust and will listen to, a reader who lets you have your own voice, and who helps you edit your work by providing helpful feedback.
A writing exercise gives you the opportunity to practice and learn the craft and art of writing in a safe way. It can be a very good tool. Still, the best writing exercise is to write, and write and write some more. If you are anything like me and have eschewed writing exercises because they seem silly and for amateurs, — oh so serious us — then might I suggest reading a batch of ideas and try one or two, adjust and customize the exercise so that it works for you. Then do it: sit yourself down, set a deadline and get to it. Write. As in now.