More Writing Exercises!


As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m teaching a short writing course at my daughters’ school.  We had our second session this past Friday night, and, once again, I had my “students” do a couple of writing exercises in class.  As I did last week, I did the exercises myself, right along with them, and found to my surprise that I loved the passages I wrote.

There was nothing terribly creative about the exercises I had the class do.  Last week we worked on character development; this week we discussed point of view and voice.  For the first exercise, I had the class write a scene in which the character they created during last week’s class meets the student him or herself (so when I wrote mine, I had the character I worked on the week before encounter me at a bus stop).  I told them to write the scene in first person from the point of view of their character, not themselves.  I wanted them to work on getting out of their own voices and concentrate on seeing the world (and, in this case, themselves) through the eyes of another.

I gave them (us) fifteen minutes to write, and then asked whoever was willing to read aloud what they had written.  And wow!  The quality of what they wrote blew me away.  Their characters had depth, the voices in which they wrote were unique and clearly different from their own, and their scenes, though small, had coherence and story arc.

I assure you, this had nothing to do with anything I did as their teacher.  Rather, I think the quality of their work, and also the quality of the passage I came up with, had everything to do with the conditions under which they were written.  At the start of the fifteen minutes, most of my students said that they didn’t think they could write anything worthwhile in so little time, to which I basically said, “Well, try anyway.”  But I have to admit that I was a little skeptical, too.  That, in part, was why I wanted to try it myself.  I make myself write everyday, so I figured that if I couldn’t do it, I could hardly fault them for having trouble.

After, I could tell that all of them were pleasantly surprised with what they had written in so little time.

And I think that the time factor was the key to it all.  It certainly was for me.  I didn’t have enough time to plan, or to worry about word choice, or to come up with something clever and complicated.  I turned off my internal editor and I wrote.  What I came up with was lean and funny and good enough that I want to find a way to work it into a larger story.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post in which I suggested a few writing exercises.  Allow me to suggest a couple more, beginning with the one I had my students do the other night.  (Exercise 1: Again, write a scene in which a character you’ve created meets you.  Write the scene from your character’s POV, in first person.)  We ran out of time on Friday night, but I intended to have them follow up that exercise with Exercise 2: in which they recreated that scene between themselves and their characters, this second time writing it in third person with themselves as the point of view character.  Again, this pair of exercises is meant as practice on point of view and voice; it’s intended to force the writer to make each character sound unique.

Exercise 3:  One more for voice and point of view.  Gauge your own mood, and then write a short sketch of a character who is in the exact opposite mood.  If you’re happy and content, make her ticked off.  If you’re feeling relaxed, make her tense.  Or vice versa.  In other words, step out of your own emotions and step into your character’s.

Do you ever play with motifs in your work?  This exercise might help.  Exercise 4:  Choose a person you know who you really don’t like and (after changing the name…) write a character sketch of this person using a food motif.  Don’t overdo it.  If your sketch is two pages long, don’t have more than three or four food metaphors or similes.  But this can be a really fun one, as long as you don’t show it to the wrong people….

I’ll have my students do this one next week, when I plan to have them work on dialog.  Exercise 5:  Write an encounter between two characters and don’t use any direct dialog attribution.  In other words no “he said” “she said” “he asked” “she asked” or any such phrases.  Instead, use only descriptions of mannerisms, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. to indicate who is speaking.  (So this would not be allowed:  “‘Stop doing that,’ he said.”  This would:  “He glared at her.  ‘Stop doing that.'”)  This exercise can help writers avoid said bookisms (things like “he rasped” “she growled” “he hissed” “she exclaimed”) and also get them to look for more imaginative ways to describe conversations.

With all of these exercises, I would urge you to give yourself a set amount of time — use an oven timer or the alarm on your cell phone.  Don’t take more than twenty or twenty-five minutes with any one of them.  You’ll be surprised by how much time that is, and by how much you can get written in that time.  As I said at the outset, I was surprised and delighted by the work I did in class the other night.  I can’t wait to do more of these.

David B. Coe

14 comments to More Writing Exercises!

  • Great exercises, David. Could you give us an instance of the food motif one?

  • I want to see how your character described you! Let’s see it!

    I love writing exercises. They are great for busting me out of the writing-doldrums, when nothing is flowing and I feel like a stopped up drain. Kinda like today.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thanks for these. They look like really good exercises. Especially the point-of-view and mood ones, which I am quite certain are things I should work on. I’m always afraid of my characters sounding all sort of the same, especially when I switch to a minor POV character.

  • Thanks for these exercises! I took a writing class last summer, and the instructor would always start with one or two quick exercises, each 15 – 30 minutes long. Sometimes I felt blocked and had trouble, but more often than not, the creative juices ran freely and I ended up with some fun little pieces. There’s one that I posted to my blog back in August called Chocolate Surprise. The instructor wanted us to use the words chocolate and blood in a short story written in 20 minutes. The result was kind of predictable coming from me, but I really liked it. I cleaned it up a little bit, but mostly didn’t touch it before posting.

    Since that class I haven’t really done any writing exercises, but this is a good reminder that I should! Thanks!

  • Unicorn

    I almost cheered when I read the title. I love writing exercises! And I also ditto Faith. Can we see what your character thought of you? Pretty please?
    Megan – love your short story! Especially the twist at the end.
    Thanks for the exercises.

  • One thing you touched on that is soooo true — by doing these exercises, by cutting away any luxury of time, you force yourself to write without editing as you go. Sometimes we can talk ourselves out of a really good sentence, idea, what-have-you, because our internal editor is more conservative than our Muse. It’s good to remind ourselves to free things up and let our creativity loose for awhile. Thanks!

  • Sorry for not responding sooner, all. I went to a wildlife refuge on the Tennessee River and spent the day looking at Sandhill Cranes (a couple of thousand of them) Bald Eagles, and a bunch of other birds. Lovely. Anyway, to your comments…

    A.J., thanks. I’m not sure I can whip off a food motif character sketch right off the top of my head, but phrases pop into my mind — “a disposition that could make sour cream go bad”; “a complexion like farina and skin the texture of oatmeal.” That sort of thing.

    Faith, I have to admit that I didn’t used to like writing exercises as much as I do now. Like you, I find them very helpful when I can’t get my creative juices flowing in other ways.

    Hep, thanks. Hope you find these helpful. I agree with you: finding that unique voice for a secondary character can be especially difficult. I find it all too easy to be lazy in my approach and not put in the effort I should.

    Megan, thanks for sharing the link to your work. Hope this will spur you to do a few more exercises in your spare time.

    Unicorn, glad you like exercises, too. Hope you enjoy these.

    Stuart, yeah, that’s exactly what I found. I wrote things that I might not have under normal conditions because I had shut off that fussy editor who sometimes hovers at my shoulder.

  • Okay, my character’s encounter with me. She’s going to be a lead character in a new book I’m plotting. I like her a lot.

    >>The bus is late, which usually doesn’t mean crap to me. But my Mustang is in the intensive care unit at Gianelli’s Garage, and I’m stuck here in the rain, waiting for the 134. I woke up ticked off at the world and it’s only gotten worse.

    And now the jerk behind me is on his cell phone, talking to someone, his wife probably, about something that I really don’t want to hear. Or so I think.

    In the next minute, though, he’s got my attention

    “I’m sure I left it there,” he’s saying. “And I need to come and get it now. If my wife finds out, I’m dead.”

    Asshole! Cheating asshole! I don’t know this guy at all, and already I hate his guts. I glance his way, smirk at what I see.

    He’s an inch or two shorter than I am — mid-forties, thinning hair, graying beard. He has a hoop earring in one ear as if he thinks he’s some goddamned rock star.

    Our eyes meet and his face goes red. He turns away, continues his conversation in a quieter voice.

    I want to listen now, want to hear how this jerkwad is going to explain himself. I have half a mind to rip the phone from his hand, speed dial his home, and tell his wife everything.

    But at that moment I spot the bus crawling toward us. I guess he sees it, too, because he ends his call and puts his phone away.

    Our eyes meet again, and he shrugs, a sheepish smile on his face. “Lost my kid’s birthday present,” he says.

    I open my mouth, close it again. So maybe he’s not a cheat. I bet he’s still a jerk.

  • DAVID! I loved it! And I loved the surprise (for your POV character) ending. Whoot!

  • Lance Barron

    David, Great. I can see wny you don’t want her to get away. Did you read this to the class?

  • Fun exercise, David. I like your character and the surprise at the end (I bet the kids did, too). I was on the road all day yesterday, so I’m glad Faith and the other bugged you to post this.

  • “I didn’t have enough time to plan, or to worry about word choice, or to come up with something clever and complicated.”

    This rang true for me. Turning off the inner editor is huge. I just wish I could remember to do it more often!

    Thank you for this exercise idea. I’ve been feeling unstretched lately, and I’m going to try this out. (Great passage, too!)

  • Unicorn

    Yay! Thanks for posting the passage, David. I loved it! Your character sounds so fascinating. He/she has a very definite voice.

  • Thanks, Faith.

    Lance, thank you. Yes, I did read it to the class. They liked it a lot, and I think we’re grateful to me for sharing my passage, since I was asking them to share theirs.

    Yeah, Ed, but I missed YOU bugging me….

    Laura, I need to remind myself to turn it off, too. I’m hoping that when I sit down to write this book, I can manage to find the same energy and immediacy that I found in the exercise.

    Unicorn, thank you. And it is a she, though that’s not immediately obvious from the passage (although I think her reaction to the guy “cheating” is something of a giveaway).