by Kelley Lindberg
Writing exercises are the bane of every student’s existence. But they are the favorite playground for many, many professional writers.
Why? Because writing exercises do for your writing skills what physical exercises do for your body.
A muscular build isn’t a “talent” you’re born with. It’s the result of dedication to a routine of exercises that focus on building up every part of your body, bit by bit. You do exercises for your upper leg muscles, your lower leg muscles, your “core,” your arms, your back and waist and buns and middle toe and left earlobe. You do different exercises to tone up your muscles, your heart, and your lungs. You run, you lift weights, you do yoga, you bike, you swim. You dance, ski, rock-climb, play sports, or chase your kids around the park.
And you keep at it. Then one day you realize your body is in pretty good shape, and you finally have the stamina, strength, lung capacity, and know-how to take on a 5K, or a marathon, or a century bike race.
Writing exercises do the same thing for your writing craft.
I have non-writing friends who are surprised to learn that sometimes in my weekly writing group we do writing exercises. It apparently doesn’t occur to non-writers (and, sadly, to newbie writers) that there are ways to improve your craft – that you aren’t just born with genius-level writing skills. They are astounded to learn that writing skills can be enhanced by doing writing exercises, just like our bodies benefit from physical exercise. And what’s more, if you don’t stretch and work those writing muscles, they’ll wither away or atrophy from neglect.
No one wants their writing to be pasty, flabby, and weak. And let’s not even think about writing that shamelessly displays love handles and beer bellies. Not a pretty picture.
Just like with physical exercises, we can buff up our writing by targeting our exercises to individual muscle groups, like dialogue, character, description, or conflict. Then we can do whole-body exercises that work on problems like growth arcs and theme. And let’s not forget those “toning” exercises that perfect our voice.
I know some writers that do a short writing exercise every morning, just to get their creative juices flowing before they start writing their novel (the writing equivalent of stretching before a run). Other writers, like me, do them less frequently but target them to problems we’re having that week. Maybe I’ll focus on doing some character exercises if I have an antagonist who’s just not sounding authentic enough.
Where do you find writing exercises? Well, I post a new writing prompt or exercise every week in this blog. But there are plenty of websites with writing exercises, and there are seemingly unlimited shelves of excellent writing books chock-full of exercises. Go hang out in your local bookstore’s reference section and thumb through several until you find one that has exercises that make sense to you. Donald Maas, Natalie Goldberg, Ursula K. LeGuin, John Dufresne, John Truby…these are just a handful of writers who have produced writing craft books with helpful exercises (and they’re all on my shelf). But just because I like one doesn’t mean it will speak to you, so you have to find one that really grabs your imagination so that you’ll actually feel like doing the exercises (instead of just reading about them, which works about as well as reading about running).
Your body (of work) will thank you for it.