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?