Why are writing exercises important for writers?

By John Palmer

Creative writing doesn’t just come naturally. Like all forms of creativity, whether it be art, music, dance, or writing, it requires a lot of practice. After all, the more you do something, the better you’ll get. That’s why exercises and writing prompts are a great way to hone your craft.

Writing anything, regardless of whether or not it gets published, is an important step when it comes to cultivating your ability as a writer. Nobody is born with the ability to write a masterpiece. It requires years of practice, and for the majority, multiple failed attempts. So, don’t doubt your own ability, just keep practising and remember, not everything you write has to be published. It’s fun to play around with words and see what happens. Sometimes you’ll find something useful and other times you’ll learn what doesn’t work, but either way, you’ll improve your ability as a writer.

The Exercises

These exercises are titled by the aspect of your writing in which they will help to improve.

1: Improve your storytelling

A textual intervention (or in other words, fan fiction) is a useful tool when it comes to cultivating creativity. You are taking an already existing world and altering it to become your own. You could do anything from introducing a new character to introducing existing characters into a completely different period in history. There could even be aliens. You’re only limited by the bounds of your own creativity. If you can imagine it, you can make it happen.

Now, I know not everyone is keen on the idea of writing fan fiction, but hear me out. By doing this kind of exercise and taking an existing world, character, or mythology, you are able to free up time when it comes to worldbuilding and character creation to focus solely on your storytelling. This method of taking character A, introducing them to location D, and having them meet antagonist X, means you are able to hone your ability as a storyteller, without spending hours trying to create a believable world from scratch. Granted, the chance of getting this piece published is slimmer than a fly’s wing, but this exercise isn’t about the piece you write, it’s about learning to tell a riveting story.

2: Improve your descriptions

Now, this one might seem a tad peculiar, but doing this exercise will allow you to look at the world in a new light. It’s time to get creative with your descriptions.

First, you need to pick an emotion, it can be anything from happiness, to rage. Now, describe it using all five senses. What does it smell like, taste like, feel like, etc. Due to the fact that this relies on your own personal experiences, no two people will have the same descriptions which can lead to some fascinating results.

You can try this with anything from colours, to musical notes, to individual words picked at random out of a dictionary. You should give yourself a time limit of five or ten minutes because it’s better not to overthink this exercise. Just go with your gut.

Here’s an example: Desperation

Sight: Desperation appears as a wild tangle of vines with no real sense of order. Its chaotic form is masked, almost entirely, by the dark shadows cast upon it.

Sound: Desperation is loud like a whisper and despite its urgent shrillness, it can only be heard by those closest.

Taste: Desperation leaves a bitter taste on the tongue. Its repulsive explosions of flavour are as sharp as glass is to swallow.

Touch: Desperation is hard to the touch but through the application of pressure, you will feel it flex, almost as if it is ready to snap.

Smell: Desperation smells like the damp musk of a mould encrusted wall. It seeps into your nostrils, overpowering every other smell until it is the only one left.

3: Improve your dialogue

We’ve all read a stilted exchange between two characters with no distinct voice, and most of us, including myself, have at one time or another, written one. So what can you do if you want to improve your dialogue? The method I’ve found to work best is to pen a conversation between two characters without using any dialogue markers. That means no ‘he said’, ‘she said’, or ‘they bellowed from the rooftops’.

Dialogue markers ensure the reader doesn’t get lost, so without them, it’s important to have strong and unique character voices that differ from each other. This isn’t a strict exercise though, because if you feel it’s appropriate to throw in a simple ‘he/she /they said’, once every now and again, then go for it. Just remember, that the goal here is to create distinct character voices.

Of course, it’s important to ensure that the dialogue makes sense and can be followed by the reader, so once it’s finished, have somebody read over it. Have them tell you every time they had to reread a sentence to work out who was speaking and rewrite it. This is actually harder to do than it sounds, but is well worth the effort once you know what you’re doing.

4: Cultivate your imagination

Creativity and imagination are vital tools for every writer. However, no matter how naturally creative you are, or how active your imagination is, we all struggle to be creative at times. This is normal, but your imagination is like a muscle and still needs exercise. That’s why it’s always good to put your imagination to the test. So, how do we do this?

One easy method is to pick up a dictionary, a novel, a poem, a lyric, or a magazine and pick a word at random. Whatever word you choose, whether it be relief, water, coffin, or rose, you should write a story about that word with a minimum of 500 words. By doing this one-word prompt, you are allowing your creativity to grow and strengthen so that the next time you get stuck for ideas, it will be easier to think outside the box.

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