Timed Writing Exercises to Improve Your Writing
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. A 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.
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: 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 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 the 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, foot rest, shell, bamboo, dole, 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 starting, 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 worry about 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, its thoughts.
- Look at the room you're sitting in. Pick an area that is two foot by three foot. 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 upteenth 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." 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. Ball point 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.
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, 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.
For more about writing practice, firing your inner editor, and letting go in your writing, check out my other hubs. I also recommend reading , the book that set me on this path over 15 years ago (easy link the in Amazon box above). Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"— E. M. Forster