How to Use Writing Exercises… And How Not to Use Them

The writing community is fairly split on the matter of writing exercises. Some folks swear by them while others swear at them. Why the strong division? Well, there are some great benefits you can get from writers’ exercises, but there are also some real problems inherent in how they get used. So here’s a brief analysis of the pros and cons of these exercises, as well as some tips for making sure you use them to enhance your work–rather than allowing them to use you.

Pros:

  • Well-crafted writers’ exercises, such as those from Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany, can teach you elements of style in a way that’s easier to internalize and remember than simple dry instruction.
  • Free-writing can teach you to let go of the judgmental part of yourself that can prevent your most imaginative and creative ideas from coming out.
  • Writing in response to unusual prompts can spur you to come up with ideas you might never think of otherwise.
  • An exercise can serve as an excellent warm-up first thing in the morning when you’re having trouble getting yourself to set pen to paper.
  • If you haven’t yet figured out what you want to work on, exercises can help you pour out your thoughts onto paper, giving you a chance to find out what’s percolating in your mind and how you might turn it into something interesting through writing.
  • Exercises aimed at journaling rather than fiction-writing can help you to work through problems and issues you’re having in your life, while at the same time giving you potential material to create lifelike and interesting characters for stories, or for memoir-writing.

Cons:

  • Perhaps the biggest problem with writing exercises is that they can become an end in and of themselves, and a distraction from “real” writing.
  • Some folks become accustomed to the “anything goes” mentality of free-writing and forget that if they want to create saleable writing, they must eventually edit their work and pare it down.
  • Because folks who evaluate writing exercise results are, naturally, taking into account that it’s a free-write and that you can’t really judge it as you would a professional piece of writing (that would defeat the purpose of free-writing after all), a writer can get a false sense of self-confidence if she only ever gets feedback from these exercises. She might get a brutal awakening when she gets a more formal evaluation of a piece of writing.
  • One of the points of free-writing is to become comfortable with the creative process and to learn that it’s okay to write crud, because you never know where the good ideas can come from. Because of this it tends to be inappropriate to apply hard-core criticism to free-writes and exercise results. However, some people get too comfortable with this mentality and come to believe that it’s inappropriate to point out problems in any kind of writing work–and this can keep young writers from improving.

How to use writers’ exercises:

Use writers’ exercises as warm-ups, if you need a warm-up to get you going. Set a timer to make sure you don’t spend too much time on one; I recommend not more than 30 minutes, although for some quick and easy exercises you might go as low as 5 minutes. You can also limit yourself by space, such as one side of a sheet of paper.

Use writers’ exercises to overcome a specific lack of inspiration. Create or find an exercise that will help you come up with ideas relevant to a current block you’re experiencing and go with that–make it relevant to your current project.

Use writers’ exercises to ease into getting feedback as you develop confidence in your writing. Make it clear what level you’re writing at and what level of feedback you’re looking for.

Use writers’ exercises to get general feedback on your writing style and overall tendencies when you don’t yet feel comfortable sharing a particular project. If people tell you that you use too much passive voice in your exercises, or forget to describe scents or sounds, then you know to look for that in the rest of your writing as well. If you’re going to try this then I recommend producing at least a full page of writing, and going beyond free-writing with at least an edit or two.

Use writers’ exercises to develop a general looseness of thinking and an ability to be creative on demand. Use them to help you come up with ideas when you don’t yet know what project to work on next. Use them to ensure that you continue to do at least a little writing every day even between projects.

How not to use them:

Do not allow writers’ exercises to substitute for and distract you from your projects. As with books for writers or endless research, it’s all too easy to get sucked into working with exercises endlessly because you “just aren’t ready” to start your big project. Well if you never start writing it then you’ll never be ready. At some point you just have to dive in.

Remember that free-writes and exercise results are judged very differently from writing projects that are meant for general public consumption. Do not expect that positive comments on your exercises will automatically translate into acclaim for your stories or poems. Exercise results can help you ease into the editing and learning process, but they can’t act as the sum total of it.

Also remember that it’s fully appropriate for criticism of writing projects to be much more in-depth and painful to assimilate than the kind of criticism you might be used to getting when you share the results of an exercise. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of expecting that people should be as forgiving of your writing when they see your full projects as they are when they see your daily exercises.

On the other hand, I don’t recommend asking for full-bore critiques of the results of a writers’ exercise unless you’ve turned it into a full project and revised it at least several times. Again, part of the point of exercises is to learn to allow your thoughts to flow freely, to learn to get your ideas down on paper without judgment, and you can’t do that if you’re afraid of what people will say about them.

As long as you manage your time and your expectations appropriately, I believe that writers’ exercises can fulfill a very useful function. However , you do have to make sure that they don’t take over your writing life or warp your expectations regarding critiques.

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