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14 Best Writing Exercises to Help You Smash Writer’s Block to Bits

By May 28, 2021 No Comments

Writing is often thought of as a mystical process. Perhaps for some writers, it is a sort of magical thing where the ideas are found in fluid and divine fashion. But for others, writing is a labor of love.

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without those exercises, the muscles seize up.” — Jane Yolen

Stephen King famously said he writes a minimum of 2,000 words per day. J.K. Rowling rewrote one chapter of the Prisoner of Azkaban thirteen times. The end result often appears so perfect that it deceives the reader from understanding how difficult the story was to complete. A book is never finished without a writing process. The best creative processes factor in writer’s block and help the author overcome it.

So how do you overcome writer’s block?

Many authors include a mix of writing exercises in their process. Even if they enjoy the smoke-and-mirrors Wizard of Oz-like presentation, behind the curtain, you’re likely to find them using specific techniques to sharpen their craft.

To help you smash writer’s block to bits, we’ve compiled 14 creative writing exercises used by these successful authors and other wordsmiths. Without further ado, check out this list of great writing exercises!

What are writing exercises?

Writing exercises are practice ideas for writers designed to get them unstuck or to improve their skills. The point of a writing exercise is to stimulate new thoughts and alter patterns. Creativity ultimately comes from building on patterns and breaking them when they no longer serve the writer. Conversely, writer’s block is caused by being too deeply entrenched in unproductive patterns of thought.

Best Writing Exercises

Best Writing Exercises For Fiction Writers

  1. Stream of Consciousness

“You dip your toes in this unbreakable stream of consciousness until creativity gets its teeth in you and pulls you to its depths.” — Curtis Tyrone Jones

Stream of Consciousness Writing Technique

You probably already know what stream of consciousness is, but for those who don’t, stream of consciousness is a writing technique where the thoughts and emotions of the narrator are written in a trackable, fluid state. The idea behind stream of consciousness is that it replicates the organic flow of thought from a state of emotion, words, and images, seamlessly transitioning from one to another.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: The term stream of consciousness originates from the 1890 text The Principles of Psychology by William James; however, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others were applying this writing exercise long before it was given a name.

Simply start with a blank page and begin writing. The entire objective is to continue to flow, uninterrupted by editing or overthinking. Alternatively, the stream of consciousness is known as “free writing.” Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is a great example of this writing technique put into practice.

  1. Paraphrasing

“Inevitably, everything we say is either a quotation or a paraphrase.” — Mason Cooley

When Picasso first began painting, he focused on realism. The idea is that he had to learn the fundamentals and the rules in order to properly break them. Much in the same way, paraphrasing forces writers to dissect another author’s work word for word.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: Find an author or a poet whose work moves you in some way. As you paraphrase their work, dive deep and analyze it to find out why it resonates with you. Paraphrasing is an amazing creative writing exercise to help new writers discover their voice by trying on the voice of others.

  1. Write Flash Fiction

“Short fiction seems more targeted — hand grenades of ideas if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like an atmosphere: it’s a lot smokier and less defined.” — Paolo Bacigalupi

You’ll often hear veteran writers say that if you can’t tell a short story in 500 words, increasing your word count won’t solve your storytelling issues. Settle down at your keyboard and write flash fiction; a story that is 500 words or fewer.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: Before answering what makes flash fiction such a great writing exercise, it’s critical to note the difference between flash fiction and free writing. Freewriting uses stream of consciousness without any set parameters, whereas flash fiction demands the story has a structure in the most distilled form. Writing flash fiction is best for creative writers looking to improve their plots, story arcs, and other structural elements.

  1. Use Writing Prompts

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” — W. Somerset Maugham

Using creative writing prompts is a smart writing exercise because it forces you to work within a set of limitations. For example, you could start by writing your story in reverse. Perhaps beginning with the conclusion will stimulate ideas you would have never had otherwise.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: You’ll often hear a writer explain the trigger that launched them into their magnum opus. For example, Jose Saramago’s magic realism novel Blindness is based around the idea of the whole world going inexplicably blind — except for one woman. As you could imagine, it led his mind into a place of extreme circumstances, which posed himself and the reader’s questions about ethics and morality. Another fun prompt to get the creative juices flowing would be to start your story off with a line of dialogue that left an enormous impact on you.

  1. Amalgamate People You’ve Known Into Characters

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” — Ernest Hemingway

Creating dynamic characters in your fiction can be challenging. However, amalgamating people you’ve known into characters — or combining their distinct characteristics can help you achieve this.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: You’ll often hear actors and actresses — especially method actors — talk about how they picked and pulled from a variety of individuals to complete the character they portrayed in the movie. Christian Bale, for example, used Tom Cruise as his inspiration for Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. And we can obviously tell Captain Jack Sparrow is basically Keith Richards as a pirate. The same concept can be used in fiction writing. If drawing inspiration from one person isn’t quite giving you the dynamic character development you’re going for, consider mixing and matching elements of multiple people you know until the character takes shape.

Best Writing Exercises For Poets

  1. Goodreads Concept and Word Bank

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest of hearts.” — Patrick Rothfuss

The next time you feel you are out of words and ideas, think about your favorite authors or the work that’s had the greatest impact on you. Personally, I find myself going back time and time again to the surrealist poets Pablo Neruda, Federico Lorca, and Octavio Paz. No matter who or what resonates with you, the critical part is understanding why it does. Perhaps it’s the language itself? In that case, create a word bank of your favorite words they use. One of the best ways of doing this is going to Goodreads and looking up the author quotes and excerpts.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: You might find yourself short on ideas or concepts. Sometimes you’ll uncover that a line moves you because of the idea, but the execution is sub-par. In this case, try deviating as far from the original concept in both idea and execution.

  1. Turn Prose Into Poetry and Poetry Into Prose

“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public. That’s what the poet does.” — Allen Ginsberg

Both poetry and prose have distinct advantages over each other. Whether you enjoy writing poetry or you’re more of a prose writer, this creative writing exercise will help you take the best of both and infuse them into your style.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: If you’re also an athlete, you are probably familiar with the term “cross-training” — if not, the idea behind cross-training is to use the movements and concepts of playing one sport or performing one exercise to improve your abilities at another. For instance, Olympic Gold Medal-winning snowboarder Sean White also happens to be an X Games skateboarder, which is more of a summer sport. Likewise, 2-time NBA MVP Steve Nash grew up playing soccer throughout his life, which helped his footwork in basketball. To apply the concept of cross-training to your writing, start by writing a poem about a particular moment in your life and then, write about the same scene in prose. To take it a step further, begin sprinkling in language and certain lines from your poetry into your prose and you’ll end up writing lyrically with practice.

  1. Sketch A Scene with Words

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Painters go out and look for scenes to paint. They seek out their subject matter. Many writers are introverts, so they often seek out their inspiration in the pages of books. Go out to a bar or cafe with a pen and paper or sit at a park and write about everything you see, hear, and smell.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: This free-writing technique is the perfect creative exercise to allow yourself to be inspired. Avoid filtering your observations. Write what you see and write it well.

  1. Write About Happy Times

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” — L.M. Montgomery

One of the great misperceptions about writing is that you have to be in a deeply emotional state or be mentally unbalanced to be excellent at it. The reality is that writers don’t have to stick their head in an oven or get drunk and die in a ditch to be a master at their craft. Emotions do have power and that power does translate to the page. However, what is often taken for granted and is underrepresented in the literary world are the happy times. People do love their drama, but a challenge few writers tackle head-on is turning the joyful periods of their life into compelling stories.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: Writing about happy times is a great writing exercise not only for your writing — but also for your mental health. While journaling about grief can be cathartic and have its own set of benefits, writing about happiness and joy allows you to live those moments twice and scrapbook them as literature forever. Why not immortalize your bliss? If poetry isn’t a passion of yours, consider blogging about the good times.

Best Writing Exercises For Non-fiction Writers

  1. Hunt for Empty Words

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” — Anton Chekhov

One of the traps a writer can fall into is wanting to prove their writing is good instead of telling the story in the truest, sharpest, most efficient manner. Adding filler words for flourish doesn’t necessarily drive the story forward. Even worse, writing that tries too hard, takes the reader out of the story and inserts the author into it.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: By removing any expletives, your nonfiction book will be smoother and much easier for the reader to digest. Many expletives complete the syntax of a sentence, but often still aren’t needed. Some common expletives are “there is,” “there are,” “there was,” “it is,” and so on. Replace your expletives with stronger verbs and other storytelling elements. Once you begin hunting for empty words, you’ll end up coming up with more creative alternatives. Oftentimes, even words like “started” could be ditched. For example, instead of saying “She started to write,” expressing it as “She wrote” can serve the same purpose in many contexts. And of course, always check for unnecessary adverbs.

  1. Replace Your Adjectives

“Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.” — William Zinsser

Replacing your adjectives ties into the golden rule of writing: show, don’t tell. Don’t merely tell the reader how you want them to feel about the things you’re describing. Show them why. As in, instead of saying something was “hilarious,” prove it. Make the reader laugh at or about it. Instead of describing something as “terrifying,” terrify the reader.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: Take a final draft of your writing and examine your adjectives. Can any of them be replaced with a powerful description? Can you cut out redundancies? Adjectives can be overused to describe something obvious.

  1. Write About A Person You’ve Known

“I write about real people in disguise. If anything, my characters are toned down – the truth is much more bizarre.” — Jackie Collins

Writing about a person you’ve known is a smart way to bring your characters to life. In the real world, the characters are already plenty nuanced. Another trap writers often fall into is thinking dichotomously about their characters. As in, they telegraph that the good guys are the good guys and the bad guys are the bad guys. Again, in the real world, it simply doesn’t work that way. Good people make mistakes, poor decisions, and do “bad” things from time to time. Bad people can still surprise and do decent things every now and then. And then some characters fall into a grey area, where they aren’t selfish as much as they are self-interested. Rich characters are complicated and if you observe with a distinguishing eye, you’ll notice plenty of them to draw from.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: The people you’ve met have their idiosyncrasies and quirks. This fun writing exercise will remind you to think of your characters as actual people with unique thoughts, ulterior motives, and the ability to surprise the reader.

  1. Eavesdrop For Dialogue

“Any place is good for eavesdropping if you know how to eavesdrop” — Tom Waits

Eavesdropping for dialogue, whether done intentionally or not, has been used as a creative writing technique by many legendary songwriters such as Don Henley and Glen Fry of The Eagles. My uncle Kevin Montgomery, a Nashville singer-songwriter based out of the UK, was the first person to introduce me to this writing exercise. Back when he lived in Los Angeles, many of his best lyrics came from sitting in cafes with a pen and paper in hand, taking note of the drama and human experience around him.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: While songwriters have used this creative writing exercise to generate some of their best lines, long-form prose authors and poets could make good use of eavesdropping for dialogue. Take a pen and paper or use your Notes app in your phone and listen with a keen ear.

  1. Change Your Point of View

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” — Walt Whitman

One of the best writing exercises for novelists is to change points of view. A mistake many writers fall into the trap of from time to time is to focus so heavily on the scenery and the atmosphere of the story that the characters end up neglected. When writing a book, the end result will only be as powerful as the characters.

Why this is such a great writing exercise: Changing your point of view develops empathy for your characters. Try writing from the perspective of your antagonist or take on the challenge of bringing a minor character to the forefront of the story in place of a main character. You can switch POV as a creative writing exercise in your own books or re-writing chapters from your favorite reads.

People Also Ask These Questions About Creative Writing Exercises

Q: What are the best writing exercises for fiction writers?

The best writing exercises for fiction writers help them stretch their imaginations and make their fictionalized settings and characters feel more true-to-life relative to the world they inhabit.

Q: What are the best writing exercises for nonfiction writers?

The best writing exercises for nonfiction writers are practice tools that help them remain creative and avoid writing anything bland and generic.

Q: What are the best writing exercises for poets?

The best writing exercises for poets challenge them to find new phrases, new structures, and just to continually think outside of the box.

Q: What are good writing exercises for beginners?

Good writing exercises for beginners give them a starting point to get used to putting words down on the page. The most important thing for new writers is to simply get started and to develop good writing habits.

Q: What are good writing exercises for kids?

Good writing exercises for kids are any practices that help them gain confidence and encourage them to write. The first step is getting kids to fall in love with the writing process and to enjoy practice writing. Over time, they will develop a writing style, but focus entirely on developing a passion for it.

Q: What are good writing exercises for adults?

Good writing exercises for adults help them develop technical precision and becoming a better writer.

Q: What are the benefits of writing exercises?

Some of the benefits of writing exercises include breaking through writer’s block, eliminating bad writing habits, improving your writing skills, and getting you to start writing.

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