The Limits of Language: Writing Exercises to Help You Explore What’s Possible

Updated on March 27, 2018

I’m an irrefutably stubborn individual. If something is supposedly impossible, I won’t automatically assume it is. I cannot imagine how many times I’ve exasperated my parents by insisting I would make the supposed impossible a reality. Failure often occurred. Nevertheless, my well-established tenacity is enormously helpful in my writing efforts.

The follow writing exercises are intended to stretch (or entirely sidestep) your rational mind. They are supposed to knock on the door of nonsensicality. Consider yourself privileged if this door opens. If you wish to write innovative prose and verse, it’s helpful to loosen up your mind concerning what is and is not possible on the page. Limbering up may enable you to “go the distance” in future pieces. Learning to scurry past your internal censor is priceless. Even if you eventually delete a few of your innovative phrases, merely writing them is a radical and victorious act.

Exercise One

This is what I call “phrases of interest mashup.” It was inspired by the musicians on YouTube who expertly combine songs.

Here are the twelve phrases of interest I’ll consider using:

  1. “surrender to the extremes”
  2. “my quibbles notwithstanding”
  3. “uprooting my assumptions”
  4. “if, and only if”
  5. “exploring the particulars of my aversion”
  6. “you just say that because you love me”
  7. “into the gloomy abyss”
  8. “everything I never told you”
  9. “weirdly impactful”
  10. “fragile quiet and calm”
  11. “emotional truthfulness”
  12. “in the company of those exiled”

One Example of a Song Mashup

Here are the three guidelines:

  1. Do not combine more than four phrases at once.
  2. Try to make the results whimsical and outlandish.
  3. You can use only one part of a phrase.

A few examples:

  • “Surrender to the extremes if, and only if into the gloomy emotional truthfulness.”
  • “Uprooting everything I never told you because you love my quibbles.”
  • “Assumptions aversion gloomy abyss fragile quiet.”

Exercise Two

Take a commonplace expression, such as “my Tuesday to-do list” and add the weirdest adjectives you can. These adjectives can be placed either before or after this expression.

A few examples:

  • “Buying snakes and spiders is not on my Tuesday to-do list.”
  • “Batman ate my Tuesday to-do list.”
  • “My Tuesday to-do list is a unicorn in disguise.”
  • “My Tuesday to-do list has vanished in a puff of purple smoke.”
  • “Martha Stewart doesn’t like my Tuesday to-do list.”

Exercise Three

The purpose of this exercise is to affix unexpected adjectives to common objects.

Our five objects are:

  1. baseball bat
  2. eyeglasses
  3. 1988 Honda Civic
  4. bell bottoms
  5. Taylor Swift album

I won’t provide any adjectives. You can supply the ones which appeal to you.

A few examples:

  • Mister Roger’s tattered baseball bat
  • Smart-aleck eyeglasses
  • Futuristic and fantastic 1988 Honda Civic
  • Finnish (and finicky) bell bottoms
  • Existentially philosophical and paranoid Taylor Swift album

Exercise Four

It’s time to rewrite overused expressions. Instead of calling a power-hungry person a “force of nature,” for example, you could call them “a hurricane with nowhere to go and time to spare.” A person you may have described as “shy and retiring” could be likened to “a drab painting which couldn’t command the attention of the most bored person alive.” Even if you never use these expressions in a story or essay or poem, learning to avoid clichés is invaluable. Determine which expressions you frequently use. Once you do, rewrite them. One of my favorites is “Something is better than nothing.” This could become “A tenuous offering is not without consequence.” A second favorite of mine is “Insofar as I know”; this could be rewritten as “My ignorance could fill a library.”

How Would You Describe This Office?


Exercise 5

Ponder how you can describe a familiar object, person, or place in an unusual way. You must first establish what to focus on. I could, for example, consider my office. Usually I describe it as “artsy” and “colorful” and “full of personality.” Alternative descriptions could include “overrun with indecision” and “untidy and distracting” and “hostile to all literary endeavors.” These are, I realize, fairly negative descriptions. I could also describe my office more optimistically as a “den of innovation” and “whimsicality central.” Presuming you attempt to view something well-known with fresh eyes, I think it matters less how negative or positive your descriptions are.

Daniel Radcliffe: The Actor Who Plays Harry Potter in All the Movies


Exercise Six

Think about one of your favorite fictional characters. This could be someone from a book, movie, or television series. Once you’ve selected this character, select adjectives which do not describe him or her. If, for instance, I selected Harry Potter, here are a few potential adjectives which do not describe him: pretentious, humorless, cowardly, unintelligent, and slovenly.

I hope these exercises have inspired you to explore the limits of language. This isn’t a comprehensive listing. Surely there are dozens (or more) exercises I’ve failed to mention. Such may, in fact, be found in another article on this website. Best of luck in your future wordsmithing attempts.

How often do you do writing exercises?

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    • Julie K Henderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Julie K Henderson 

      5 months ago

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree about the usefulness of unusual writing exercises. Last night I did one in which I wrote "Two plus two equals" and then supplied nonsensical answers such as "a bag of sardines." It was great fun.

    • RTalloni profile image


      5 months ago from the short journey

      Writing exercises are so useful. How true that something is better than nothing, but the more unusual the exercises are the better. Something may then prove to be more than we can imagine before we begin.

    • Julie K Henderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Julie K Henderson 

      18 months ago

      Dear ThreeKeys,

      Thank you for commenting. I'm delighted that you enjoyed the article. I'm with you: J.K. Rowling is inspiring. Her comments about failure have helped me enormously. I also like this quote of hers: "Anything is possible if you've got enough nerve."

      Take care,


    • profile image


      18 months ago

      Loved loved loved this wordsmith article. Lots of fun ideas. Love trying to see and do from different angles. Write some more like this. Thanks Julie. JK Rowling is inspirational, isn't she?


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