The Usefulness of Writing Exercises

I am a terribly fickle person.

Most often, this fickleness applies to activities.  Like cooking, for instance.  I'll go on a kick where I'm interested in cooking.  I buy cookbooks, I look up recipes, I watch the Food Network, I actually cook meals and occasionally even bake things.  Then it all falls apart.  My interest wanes, and it's back to cooking the simplest of dishes, buying dinner from the take-out counter at Whole Foods, or going out.

Same thing with knitting.  I'll get inspired and suddenly I vow to be the best, most prolific knitter ever.  I browse websites for patterns, visit the yarn store, start a million new projects.  And then, poof.  It's all gone.  I set my knitting down and it may be months before I pick it up again.

I've gone through this with painting, and sewing (though I did sustain an interest in that long enough to actually design and sell clothes for awhile).  I go through it regularly with gardening.

Honestly, the only thing that has ever sustained my interest over the long haul is writing. As I've often repeated to anyone who will listen to me, writing never gets boring because there is always something new to learn about it.

However, I will admit to some fickleness around my allegiance to certain aspects of the writing life. Writing exercises spring to mind.

I've been known to advocate for writing exercises at certain points in my writing life.  And then, fickle me will abandon them.  I'll get rolling on my latest project and convince myself I don't need writing exercises any more.  I may even get a little snotty in my own brain and tell myself that writing exercises are for beginners.

Until the writing stalls.  And then, fishing about for ways to get the words flowing again, I hit on writing exercises.

It's funny, because practitioners of other creative genres rely on exercises and warm-ups as an integral part of their practices–dancers and musicians spring readily to mind.  Yet we writers (because I don't think I'm alone in my sometimes-disdain for them) are far too apt to dismiss them as irrelevant.

Last weekend, after not having written for a couple of weeks due to the fact I was in Louisville for the Spalding MFA spring residency and then had a gazillion things to catch up on, I cast about for a way to get started again.  And remembered a handout I'd gotten during a workshop in Louisville that had a writing exercise on it. I resisted for awhile, convincing myself I could just launch in on my own.  But that didn't happen.  So I followed the writing exercise (it is a multi-part thing, semi-complicated, or I would reproduce it here).

And damned if that didn't do the trick.

So, I'm suddenly enamored of writing exercises again.  I found an old book by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood called So You Want to Write, and discovered it has some good exercises at the end of each chapter.  I'm looking through my library of writing books for more ideas. 

We'll see how long this enthusiasm for writing exercises lasts.

Here's why I think they work: because they give you some structure to hang your words on.  No longer are you facing the empty page (or screen).  You've got somebody telling you what to do.  Which is helpful when you don't exactly know what to do.

And here's my best tip for working with writing exercises: use them in relationship to your current project.  This helps me to convince myself that I'm not wasting my time, since I'll be generating ideas and scenes for my WIP.  The other thing I find is that while doing this, ideas for other projects come up.  I just had a brilliant (she said modestly) image for a short story appear, for instance.

Over the years, I've put up a few pages and posts that contain writing exercises.  Since I'm on a writing exercise high, I list them here:

The DaVinci Device

Techniques for Generating Ideas and Getting Started

The Bluebird Canyon Special

7 Ways to Use Writing Prompts With Your Current Project

That's enough about me and the writing exercises I like.  What about you?  Do you use writing exercises?  Do you have a favorite one you would like to share?

Photo by brokenarts.

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13 Responses to The Usefulness of Writing Exercises

  1. J.D. 06/04/2013 at 04:12 #

    I don’t use them. However, I have periods of poor productivity. Thanks for the list.

  2. Zan Marie 06/04/2013 at 04:31 #

    I *love* exercises! The best thing I ever did for my writing was join the Writer’s Exercises folder on the Books and Writers Forum. We have a new exercise every month. We support and critique each other. And, best of all, we can center it all on our current WIP. It works for me. BTW, we’re gearing up for a new “house party” where we let out characters out of our WIPs to play together ad lib style. ; )

  3. Charlotte Dixon 06/04/2013 at 06:23 #

    Give them a try, J.D. You never knowthey might help.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 06/04/2013 at 06:25 #

    Wow great to hear, Zan Marie! And that sounds like a great resource. Also you have a lot of fun with writing exercises I can tell.

  5. Wendy JS 06/04/2013 at 08:01 #

    I have been writing from the first time a crayon was placed in my hand. Some time ago I realized I had a book in me and I am now working on getting it onto paper. Working through the exercises in Rami Shapiro’s book & am having a lot of fun. Will also try your recommendations. came accross your site recently, Thank you for your generous sharing

  6. Charlotte Dixon 06/04/2013 at 08:37 #

    Thanks for commenting! Rami is a dear friend so I'm glad you found his book!

  7. Don 06/04/2013 at 11:05 #

    As always, this is an interesting and important subject. It makes sense that if we are to be the best that we can, in what ever field, writing included, we often have to do the things that we DON’T LIKE,as much as the things that we DO LIKE. I’m with you since I also hate doing exercises and pretty much for the same reason as you…. it seems pointless, and a waste of time and for beginers. Your you are right though, people of other professions always practice their craft by doing exercises to help improve their skills. Writing exercises are the same, not necessarily what you want to do, but ABSOLUTELY necessary if we are truly interested in bettering our writing skills and tying them in with what you are currently working on is also a fantastic way of making your exercises seem more meaningful.

  8. Don 06/04/2013 at 11:07 #

    PS…. apparently I should do some exercises relating to commenting as I notice that I made a dozy of mistakes in my above post, which only serves to show just how important writing exercises really are!

  9. Don 06/04/2013 at 11:09 #

    Wow, I even noticed how I made mistakes commenting on my commenting mistakes. Boy, oh boy….. at least I’m consistent!

  10. Charlotte Dixon 06/04/2013 at 11:39 #

    Thanks for commenting, Don.  I'm so glad I'm not the only one who tends toward thinking that writing exercises are dumb most of the time.  I hope that experimenting with using them in regards to your WIP is helpful to you.  Hope also that all is well and you're having a great summer up there!

  11. Charlotte Dixon 06/04/2013 at 14:46 #

    Consistency is a virtue, Don. :-) And in truth, I hadn’t even noticed your mistakes!

  12. Christi Corbett 06/04/2013 at 17:02 #


    In my writing critique group we start each meeting with either a writing prompt or a list of five random words, and then we write for fifteen minutes incorporating the prompt/words into our writing.

    Christi Corbett

  13. Charlotte Dixon 06/04/2013 at 21:31 #

    Christi, I love the idea of using five random words as a prompt–that is a great idea that anyone can string together any time they are in need of inspiration. Thank you!

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