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Timed Writing Exercises to Improve Your Writing

Why wait? These exercises will help you start now.

Why wait? These exercises will help you start now.

What Better Way to Improve Your Writer's Block Than Prompts?

Writing prompts and exercises are a fantastic way to improve your writing, increase your creativity, and free you from writer's-block hell!

You're a Writer When You Write

"If you wait for inspiration, you're not a writer, but a waiter." - Anonymous

I have been doing timed writing exercises since I was 13 years old. I find the practice a freeing way to learn about your own voice and style. The technique opens doors that you never knew existed—story ideas suddenly exist on the page, and you don't know what led to their discovery. The practice can feel like a trance, separating you from the editor many of us are used to; instead, you read your work a month later and are shocked at the riches on the page.

The following are exercises to include in your daily writing practice. Daily writing practice will lube your mind, so to speak, and put an end to writer's block, promising words when you put pen to page. These are not meant to be fine essays or publishable works of fiction; however, they create those essays and works of fiction that you have, until now, only thought about. The real writing, they say, is in the rewriting. You must write before you get anything else done.

Don't wait; just write.

Don't wait; just write.

One-Minute Writing Exercises

Set your timer for one minute. If you go outside the parameters of the exercise, don't sweat it. In your writing practice, the only rule is to keep writing. If you feel great in one particular exercise, either start over for another minute or keep going for five minutes. Never stop early!

  • Use the following words in a poem: candle, pen, bicycle, dig, forest.
  • One minute mystery. Include murderer(s), victim(s), weapon(s), place(s), setting.
  • Word relation: start with grass - go as quickly as possible for the whole minute (example: the first word is balloon: I see a balloon, at the circus, with clowns, red noses, reindeer, Christmas, trees, snow, skiing, hit a tree, hospital, Grey's Anatomy, etc.) Always try to write more whenever you do this exercise.
  • Open the nearest book and pick a sentence from the middle of the page. Don't be picky! Copy the sentence in your notebook. Write the words in a different order, throwing in some of your own if you want. (Example: Original sentence She found the warmth of the water conducive to the creative flow. Writing: Found the conducive flow creative to the water. The water flowed conducively to create the warmth she found ... etc.)
  • Make a list of positive adjectives.
  • Make a list of negative adjectives.
  • If/then - start every sentence with an "If," and follow with a "then" statement: "If the sky were blue, then it'd be green."

Five-Minute Writing Exercises

The following exercises can also be done for longer time periods, or you can create your own iterations by doing one exercise several times in a row. Be surreal! In writing practice, you will often write things that make no sense. Go with it. Chaos creates. Have fun!

  • I remember/I don't remember. (example: "I remember skating in the Olympics of 2010 in Rome, but I don't remember what event I did because there wasn't really a 2010 Olympics in Rome. I remember when I lived in Weymouth and the black railings on the porch, but I don't remember any neighbors or what color the house was.")
  • Describe, in minute detail, the sounds around you. If you hear nothing, describe nothing. Keep the pen moving.
  • Personify the walls of your house or apartment. What does it think? What does it see? What is its name?
  • Using the following words, write an angry poem: land, chair, haggard, crow, window pane, sidewalk, lounge, excellent.
  • Using the same words, write a love poem.
  • Write a letter (not to be sent; unless you insist, of course) to your favorite author. Tell him/her why you're a great writer too.
  • I like/I don't like. (example: I like frosted flakes, but I don't like milk. I like painted toes, but I don't like yogurt, etc.)

Ten-Minute Writing Exercises

Ten minutes is a great length for writing practice. It's not so short that you can't get a good feel for where you're going with your words, but for the new writer, its length offers a stamina challenge. Remember: keep the pen moving.

  • Grab a book, any book. Go to page 56. Copy the first line. Make it the first line of your story. Go to the first page. Enter the first sentence. Make it your last line. You now have a beginning and an end: write the story.
  • Describe, in minute detail, waking up.
  • Describe your hand. Go beyond how it looks. What does it do? What can it do? What will it do? The object is your hand; the subject is your hand - focus on your hand.
  • Write about your first day of school.
  • Choose ten words at random by looking around you, or use books and the internet to assist you. For now, here are ten: hot, bear, flashlight, peach, popsicle, footrest, shell, bamboo, dole, and jar. Write a story about your neighbor using those words.
  • Find a dictionary online in a language you do not speak (such as German or Italian). Copy the first word you see. Do not look at the definition or have it translated. Write about what you think it means.
  • Using that definition, write a story that involves grocery shopping.

Twenty-Minute Writing Exercises

Twenty-minute exercises are fantastic opportunities to allow your free-thinking (editor-free) mind to create something on the cohesive side. Where ten minutes can make you feel like you're just getting started, twenty can make you think you're well on your way to a good story.

Since the goal is to keep the pen moving for the whole twenty minutes, you are relying heavily on the practice you've been doing to provide you with words. The more you practice, the less you need to worry about a lack of words. They are inside you, in abundance. When you are afraid you're running out, write, "keep the pen moving." This is merely your editor returning. Ignore your inner editor.

  • Write the perfect day, beginning with how you wake up.
  • Look at a plant. Write the life of the plant - what it's done, what it's seen, where it's heading, and its thoughts.
  • Look at the room you're sitting in. Pick an area that is two feet by three feet. Describe the area and create a story around it. Put that 2'x3' area into a new setting you have created. (Example: I could write about my butcher block table in my kitchen that holds my salt, pepper, oft-used spices, oils and rice maker, as well as my utensils. I'll put it in Rachael Ray's kitchen. The butcher block is in the scene as Rachael argues with her husband for the umpteenth time about why she refuses to make him a birthday cake instead of a birthday lasagna).
  • Write The Great American Novel, starting every sentence with "This novel is about..."
  • The Number Exercise: Start a story, the first sentence having the word "one." For every sentence or two or three, create a sentence using the next number. (Example: One day, Catherine sat outside on her porch. Two birds were chirping noisily at the bird feeder. It was only the third her father had ever made. She grimaced as one bird flapped four times and fell to the ground ... etc.)
  • For insight, soul searching and reaching deep, do some of the one- and five-minute exercises mentioned above for the whole twenty minutes. You'll feel great!

A Quick Word About Tools

Try a Timer

In timed-writing exercises, you want to use a timer. Do not rely on looking at the clock. This calculated thought will interrupt your creative flow (and I do not use this phrase "creative flow" in any corny way. Writing practice truly creates a creative flow). Use a kitchen timer with a strong ding! or a timer on your phone that is tested and true.

Pick the Right Pen

Use a pen that has plenty of ink. Ballpoint pens, carried in twos, are great options. I tried writing practice with a fountain pen before, and though I love writing with fountain pens, practicing with one was inefficient. My hand moved too fast for the ink to stay with me. Choose a pen that can keep pace with your thoughts.

Write Longhand

I highly recommend writing longhand. I can type 100 words per minute, but when I practice writing, I prefer to use paper for the simple reason that I am more connected with what I am writing. The backspace key is too prevalent, and typos can distract me. Grammar tools that highlight a word or phrase with red or green are also distracting. When you are writing and practicing, you don't want an editor over your shoulder. It is contrary to the point of the exercise. Save it for when you want to think carefully, set up a plot, rewrite - save it for when you want to edit. Right now, you are writing.

Choose a Notebook

I suggest spiral notebooks, composition notebooks and blank notebooks (no lines). Fancy journals can distract you from letting go of your inhibitions and plant a seed that what you write in this fancy book should be good. If you think it won't deter you, by all means, do what you choose. But a plain spiral or composition notebook is cheap, and when you get into the habit of writing practice, you will fill them up quickly.

As you open to the process, your writing will become less legible. Whenever I have used a fancy journal (leather cover, or glitter, or a $28 price tag), I slowed down and took my time, making the words legible, the content more stilted, and writing practice was not the joy of letting go that it was. Those journals you find at dollar stores or that you receive as gifts but don't really like? Those are perfect for practicing.

Try Small Experiments

Try writing in your notebook upside down, or turn the book sideways, or write outside the margins set in the notebook. These small tasks will force you to think in creative ways, forcing your brain to adjust to something new. At the same time, try an entire exercise using your opposite hand or in print rather than cursive. Such changes of habit open the doors of your imagination.

Other Resources

For more about writing practice, firing your inner editor, and letting go of your writing, check out my other articles. I also recommend reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, the book that set me on this path over 15 years ago.

Write on!

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

— E. M. Forster


Christen Roberts (author) from Harrisburg, PA on February 08, 2019:

You're very welcome! Come back and let me know how it goes. :) It's NEVER too late.

LelasWhatnot on January 30, 2019:

This is great advice I wish I knew it earlier. Thank you

Christen Roberts (author) from Harrisburg, PA on March 04, 2015:

Thank you, Tina! Write on!

Asalina from Alabama on March 01, 2015:

Thanks for the insight, I am trying to get in the practice of letting one know when their hub has inspired me.

Christen Roberts (author) from Harrisburg, PA on August 04, 2014:

I'm sorry you are going through a busy time that leaves you feeling overwhelmed. It's no fun, even when the things that make us feel that way are things we feel are benefits (which happens to me a lot - you know - like parenting!!) If you like writing, and do feel stress, something I used to do that actually helped me, was to write in my journal without looking. I would lie in bed, as if to sleep (sometimes I was trying to sleep), and hold my pen over the notebook, arm outstretched. Every thought that came in my head, I visualized it going from my head to my neck, shoulder, arm and hand, and out of the pen onto the paper. Looking at it the next day, it looks like a big scribble, with word after word written on top of each other, but it really did make me feel lighter.

I hope your writer's block leaves you soon!

Debbie Villines from Iowa on July 30, 2014:

I really enjoyed this post; and I will try and put the writers exercises, to practice, I seem to get writers block a lot these days, but there is so much going on in my life for now, its almost over whelming. But thanks for the advise and the information, is very useful;) I like blogging, because its a shorter, way of getting my information out there;

Christen Roberts (author) from Harrisburg, PA on April 13, 2012:

Doing just five minutes a day makes me feel accomplished. When I am especially all about my kiddo or housework, it feels great to do something creative. Thanks for taking time to check out my hubs, Millionaire Tips! ;)

Shasta Matova from USA on April 13, 2012:

These are great suggestions to practice a variety of writing and get out of the rut of writing the same thing all the time. Really tests your skills and keeps you interested as well.

Christen Roberts (author) from Harrisburg, PA on June 09, 2011:

That makes me really happy, M. Everest! Have you done any since you posted this comment? I've been incredibly busy with my son and various other sundry things... time for you to practice! Any fun things? Thanks for taking time to comment! I will post more practice ideas soon. :D

M. Everest from Northern California on April 20, 2011:

Oh my gosh, this is a great article! I found myself reading through it and wanting to do all of the prompt ideas. These are really good (and inspirational). Nice hub!

Christen Roberts (author) from Harrisburg, PA on February 06, 2011:

Thank you, Mike! Your comments are encouraging; I really appreciate it. I'm thinking about opening my old notebooks and seeing what exercises I've done so I can post a very straight-forward exercises list, for someone to print out or just bookmark when they're in a rut. It would be a lot of fun for me to see them again as well (and the high school ones may be a tad bit embarrassing, but it's all humbling and good for the soul!)

Do artists have similar methods of practicing?

Mike Lickteig from Lawrence KS USA on February 04, 2011:

The suggestions here will be useful for anyone struggling with writer's block or looking to improve their work. You demonstrate not only a real ability to write, but to teach writing, as well. I have bookmarked this page for future reference. Thanks for sharing!