December 22nd, 2009 / 10:30 am
Craft Notes

Craft Fitness: On Writing Exercises

The first writing exercise I assign in any class is to have students write a brief (500 words) essay, reflection¬† or story (depending on the course) in response to a specific prompt using only one syllable words. As I relay the assignment, students express a charming range of reactions from “this bitch is crazy” to “this is impossible and this bitch is crazy,” but off they go to their dorm rooms and apartments and two days later, they return to class having written something within the assignment’s constraints and having learned about the value of a thesaurus.

While some of the work students turn in for this assignment is crazy and incoherent nonsense, the majority of students turn in one-syllable writing that is really clever. They create meaning and do so in really interesting ways. I complete the assignment too and we share our work with one another. As we discuss the assignment and what students think about the challenge of using only one syllable words, we talk about the difficulty of the task and how we take words for granted. We talk about problem-solving because most of my students are engineers and they really like the idea of writing as solving problems. We also talk about vocabulary, about choosing the most appropriate words for a given context and how if they can create meaning writing with only one-syllable words, imagine what they will be able to do when they have the entire world of words at their disposal.  The most amusing part of using this assignment is that students will often ask if they will have to write all their work for the semester using one-syllable words.  When they learn the assignment is a one-time thing their relief is palpable and heartfelt.

When writers talk about what it takes to become a better writer, we often talk about the importance of reading as the primary tool for honing our craft. Another tool I find important, and one I think is vastly under discussed is writing itself–not simply adhering to the also oft-repeated suggestion to write every day, but to write with purpose, using prompts or under specific constraints–that is, honing our craft with writing exercises.

There are times when writing exercises seem silly. I first came upon the one-syllable idea in a book of writing exercises we used in a creative writing workshop I took in grad school. While I thought that exercise was awesome, there were other exercises with which I struggled, like the one where you had to write a romantic conversation between two inanimate objects like a toaster and a refrigerator. I didn’t understand the relevance of the exercise–it seemed trivial and lame and yet, years later when I wanted to write a story with no human characters in it, I thought back to that exercise and I felt that if nothing else, I had somewhere to start–I was able to draw from the “muscle memory” created by that writing exercise.

What kinds of things do you do to keep your writing in shape? Are writing exercises useful for you? What are some of your most or least favorite writing exercises?

27 Comments

  1. JosephScapellato

      That one-syllable exercise is great. It sounds like it can make a young writer (consciously and unconsciously) aware of the fact that sentences are made of parts, and those parts are words.

      I try to freewrite first thing every morning, if only for five or ten minutes. I push myself to write scenes, not summarized notes– not “a story about X” but “X” itself. What comes out often spins from hazily-remembered dreams. It’s useful for me to “warm up” in this way (I’ll usually dive in to a larger project immediately following the exercise) and I’m hoping (perhaps a bit too optimistically) that in the near future I’ll be able to mine these little scenes.

      So, I guess for me this exercise really is like “exercise” in a “stretching-before-jogging” sort of way.

  2. JosephScapellato

      That one-syllable exercise is great. It sounds like it can make a young writer (consciously and unconsciously) aware of the fact that sentences are made of parts, and those parts are words.

      I try to freewrite first thing every morning, if only for five or ten minutes. I push myself to write scenes, not summarized notes– not “a story about X” but “X” itself. What comes out often spins from hazily-remembered dreams. It’s useful for me to “warm up” in this way (I’ll usually dive in to a larger project immediately following the exercise) and I’m hoping (perhaps a bit too optimistically) that in the near future I’ll be able to mine these little scenes.

      So, I guess for me this exercise really is like “exercise” in a “stretching-before-jogging” sort of way.

  3. Cheryl

      Filling notebooks with formal poetry is an exercise I go back to periodically. The one syllable exercise sounds great, actually.

  4. Cheryl

      Filling notebooks with formal poetry is an exercise I go back to periodically. The one syllable exercise sounds great, actually.

  5. Amy McDaniel

      Ohh I did that exercise out of What If in Wallace’s fiction workshop. I think about it a lot because I wrote something pretty dumb and I’ve thought about giving it another go.
      I love the idea of exercises, but I always kind of forget to do them. My main trick is reading and stealing words from other writers, words that I’ve kind of forgotten about.

  6. Amy McDaniel

      Ohh I did that exercise out of What If in Wallace’s fiction workshop. I think about it a lot because I wrote something pretty dumb and I’ve thought about giving it another go.
      I love the idea of exercises, but I always kind of forget to do them. My main trick is reading and stealing words from other writers, words that I’ve kind of forgotten about.

  7. ce.

      I had a class at BSU where each of us had to come up with a writing prompt/exercise to present to the class on an assigned week. A few days before my assigned week, I was doing laundry at a laundry mat and watching another person’s sundries tumbling in a dryer. I found myself inventing them as a character in my head based on what was in the dryer, and had something of a eureka moment for my writing assignment–to create a character by imagining their clothes tumbling in a dryer (or being folded by a laundry mat employee), and to write a story about them. Since then, I’ve actually gone to laundry mats solely to watch people’s clothes tumble and invent characters.

  8. ce.

      I had a class at BSU where each of us had to come up with a writing prompt/exercise to present to the class on an assigned week. A few days before my assigned week, I was doing laundry at a laundry mat and watching another person’s sundries tumbling in a dryer. I found myself inventing them as a character in my head based on what was in the dryer, and had something of a eureka moment for my writing assignment–to create a character by imagining their clothes tumbling in a dryer (or being folded by a laundry mat employee), and to write a story about them. Since then, I’ve actually gone to laundry mats solely to watch people’s clothes tumble and invent characters.

  9. JosephScapellato

      Re: “muscle memory”: is it possible that old exercises become embedded in our writing process without us even thinking about it? Say you come across a knotty moment in a work. And you approach that knotty moment from this angle, that angle, etc., until you unknot (or re-knot or mega-knot) it to your liking. Did you, as a writer, lean on the legacy of exercises?

      Maybe process sometimes = exercise(s).

  10. JosephScapellato

      Re: “muscle memory”: is it possible that old exercises become embedded in our writing process without us even thinking about it? Say you come across a knotty moment in a work. And you approach that knotty moment from this angle, that angle, etc., until you unknot (or re-knot or mega-knot) it to your liking. Did you, as a writer, lean on the legacy of exercises?

      Maybe process sometimes = exercise(s).

  11. Brandon Hobson

      Amy, did Wallace use only that text in his fiction workshop? What other good writing exercises did he use in your class?

  12. Brandon Hobson

      Amy, did Wallace use only that text in his fiction workshop? What other good writing exercises did he use in your class?

  13. Roxane Gay

      The first thing I wrote doing that exercise was… sad. I’ve tried it many times since. I am always amused, if nothing else, by the results.

  14. Roxane Gay

      The first thing I wrote doing that exercise was… sad. I’ve tried it many times since. I am always amused, if nothing else, by the results.

  15. .

      One-word words is the best words.

  16. .

      One-word words is the best words.

  17. Justin Hamm

      This probably isn’t all that original, but to practice description, I use photos or paintings. I’ll simply sit down with the image and handwrite two or three paragraphs of straight description, sometimes trying to render things as clearly and realistically as possible, sometimes trying to infuse the description with lyricism and metaphor. In either case, I shoot for something that sounds fresh, at least to my own ear.

      I wish I had the advantage of visiting lots of different places in person, of describing from observation the way a painter might paint from nature in order to improve, but, except in summer, I have serious time constraints (as I’m sure most of us do). Exercises with photos and paintings give me the variety I need to really sharpen my descriptive skills and improve the visual aspects of my writing.

  18. Justin Hamm

      This probably isn’t all that original, but to practice description, I use photos or paintings. I’ll simply sit down with the image and handwrite two or three paragraphs of straight description, sometimes trying to render things as clearly and realistically as possible, sometimes trying to infuse the description with lyricism and metaphor. In either case, I shoot for something that sounds fresh, at least to my own ear.

      I wish I had the advantage of visiting lots of different places in person, of describing from observation the way a painter might paint from nature in order to improve, but, except in summer, I have serious time constraints (as I’m sure most of us do). Exercises with photos and paintings give me the variety I need to really sharpen my descriptive skills and improve the visual aspects of my writing.

  19. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      the inanimate object exercise reminds me a little bit of a weird-ass photo-driven slash fiction story someone sent me once where characters from Stargate were… girl scout cookies, and got it on before getting chomped on.

  20. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      the inanimate object exercise reminds me a little bit of a weird-ass photo-driven slash fiction story someone sent me once where characters from Stargate were… girl scout cookies, and got it on before getting chomped on.

  21. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      There’s one from that 3:AM Epiphany book I kinda like where you write sentences in response to sentences from another person’s work.

      …I always find language-driven prompts work better for me than idea-driven ones… unless the idea ones get combined w/ language ones, like w/ prompt words or something.

      I really like the prompts Matthew Simmons has been posting here (like the one abt stuff literally beneath), but have not used them yet.

  22. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      There’s one from that 3:AM Epiphany book I kinda like where you write sentences in response to sentences from another person’s work.

      …I always find language-driven prompts work better for me than idea-driven ones… unless the idea ones get combined w/ language ones, like w/ prompt words or something.

      I really like the prompts Matthew Simmons has been posting here (like the one abt stuff literally beneath), but have not used them yet.

  23. Amy McDaniel

      Just What If. We did a ton of exercises out of it for the first third of the semester, to fill the time before anyone had a story to workshop. We’d always workshop a couple people’s exercise writings. The only other thing that could kind of be called an exercise was that we would read a short story and pretend it was submitted for workshop, and we’d write a critique letter of it. But that was more practice of writing critique letters. But it was also really valuable, I think.

      I didn’t get much out of the What If exercises at the time–at least nothing I could turn into a piece–but I have thought about doing some again now. I don’t think I treated them very seriously because at the time I didn’t understand how to move exercise into story. But I think maybe I understand that now. Though maybe the exercises had some kind of effect on the rest of my writing that I’m not consciously aware of–hard to say.

  24. Amy McDaniel

      Just What If. We did a ton of exercises out of it for the first third of the semester, to fill the time before anyone had a story to workshop. We’d always workshop a couple people’s exercise writings. The only other thing that could kind of be called an exercise was that we would read a short story and pretend it was submitted for workshop, and we’d write a critique letter of it. But that was more practice of writing critique letters. But it was also really valuable, I think.

      I didn’t get much out of the What If exercises at the time–at least nothing I could turn into a piece–but I have thought about doing some again now. I don’t think I treated them very seriously because at the time I didn’t understand how to move exercise into story. But I think maybe I understand that now. Though maybe the exercises had some kind of effect on the rest of my writing that I’m not consciously aware of–hard to say.

  25. Peter Markus

      The current issues of Unsaid and Black Warrior Review have monosyllabic stories in them.

  26. Peter Markus

      The current issues of Unsaid and Black Warrior Review have monosyllabic stories in them.

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