Simple Writing Exercises

From, 2012: The Year of Learning to Write (i.e., these exercises correspond to my 2012 posts).

Exercise 100. Bah to family conflict. Show your own family that you love them. Have a very, very, merry Christmas.

Exercise 99. What family conflicts do you recall from childhood or have in your family? Do you lend them to your characters? Can you intensify them to heighten the suspense in your story?
Exercise 98. Read your first three chapters and your first fifty pages like an agent might. Does your story's beginning 'end' in tension or suspense. Test it out on willing readers if you can, or try the flogometer at Flogging the Quill.

Exercise 97. Next time you need a break from your Work-in-Progress, compile a query letter, practice writing a strong one page synopsis, and work on your pitch. Be clear and confident about the hook.

Exercise 96. Do your stories reflect an understanding of the cerebral differences between men and women, that is, why men don't listen and women can't read maps (see Pease's lecture if you're not convinced).
Exercise 95. Do your stories reflect an understanding of wordless communication?
Exercise 94. Are your objectives consistent? (Sell, sell, sell.) Or does each story serve its own purpose? Think about your writing priorities (e.g., 1. blog legend, 2. aspiring novelist, 3. paid magazine contributor) and decide whether your time allocation reflects the priorities in your mind.

Exercise 93. Review the results of NaNoWriMo and write a Mission Statement about what you are trying to achieve through this particular story. Does it matter whether it's marketable or not?

Exercise 92. Make up one or more simple scenarios based on the basic needs. Now list the possible reactions of different personalities striving to meet that need. For example, a woman has a young child and little money. She may; a) borrow from family, b) work low-paying but respectable jobs, c) work high-paying illegal jobs, c) steal, d) beg, e) contrive to hook a wealthy man, d) place her child in foster care... and the possibilities go on. What would your characters do?

Exercise 91. Ballon advocates building characters from the inside out, and to use the writer's experiences to give life to characters. Recall a specific time as a child when you felt driven by one of the needs proposed by Maslow. Free-write on the memory, using all senses. Try to incorporate what you wanted to do, or did do, to satisfy the need? Lend your memories to one of your characters.

Exercise 90. Write a page of pursuasive prose explaining why you would rather be a cabbage or a rose. Use strong, passionate words to make your audience really believe your argument.

Exercise 89. List, what you feel are, your strengths and weaknesses (otherwise know as 'areas to improve') as a writer.

Exercise 88. Get some fresh air. Go for a walk. Pull your shoulders back. Raise your head high.

Exercise 87. Check or do your story outline for NaNoWriMo. Set your schedule. On 1 Nov, write like a cheetah runs.

Exercise 86. "Write a short story on any topic in 500 words. Then write the same story in 50 words – this is called a mini-saga." (From Joan Rosier-Jones, So You Want to Write).

Exercise 85.

Microexamine a scene or a short story. Look specifically for adverbs and adjectives that could be replaced with more effective verbs and nouns. Look for other extraneous words such as those mentioned above. Look for passive voice and change it to active (unless passive serves a role).

Exercise 84

For those not keen or not able to travel abroad, consider this: "What could be luckier for a nonfiction writer than to live in America? The country is unendingly various and surprising. Whether the locale you write about is urban or rural, east or west, every place has a look, a cast of characters and a set of cultural assumptions that make it unlike any other place." (On Writing Well, William Zinsser.) Write a story that takes the reader somewhere.

Exercise 83

"Practice writing [a] travel piece, and just because I call it a travel piece I don't mean you have to go to the Mojave Desert or Mombasa. Go to your local mall, or bowling alley, or day-care center." "Find [the] distinctive traits." (From On Writing Well by William Zinsser.)

Exercise 82

Think about how you have described your characters. Are the descriptions original or unoriginal? Can creative word or image association, weaved into actions, dialogue, setting and narrative make the characters more real?

Exercise 81

Think of the main characters in your story and describe ‘what kind of smoke’ they are. Think of the actions in the story that will have the reader associating characters with their kind of smoke.

Exercise 80

Complete the sentence: "I can be a succussful writer because...." Keep it private, post on your own blog, or post it here. Now complete this sentence: "I am a unique writer because...."

Exercise 79

Look at the objective-self's comments and recommendations. Spend an hour focusing on those issues, whether they relate to technique or working habits.

Exercise 78


Exercise 77


Exercise 76

Listen to a piece of music and jot down what it tells you. (From Rosier-Jones, So You Want to Write.)

(From a wordless piece on the radio.)

Exercise 75

Use sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste to describe a night spent in an unfamiliar place (either remembered or imagined).

Exercise 74

Now check your own novel attempt against Maupin's model.

Exercise 73

Take four paperclips and insert them in a novel - preferably one you're familiar with - so that they form five equal sections of text.  Check that the story is clearly set up by the first paperclip.  See how close to the middle of the book, or close to the third paperclip, the crisis is revealed.

Exercise 72

"Describe how a character gets from home to work in a page, then in a paragraph, then in a sentence; describe how a character moves from an argument with her husband to a meeting with a friend." (From Jean Rosier-Jones, So You Want To Write.)

Exercise 71

You've been away from a character for three chapters. Write the first four sentences to return the reader to viewpoint and location (from Elements of Fiction Writing: Setting by Jack M. Bickham).

Exercise 70

Consider the well-known Ecclesiastes verse, A Time for Everything.  Pick a line and write a story.

a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Exercise 69

Plot a course for a story that experiments with an unfamiliar timing scheme.

Exercise 68

Draft an outline for a story (long or short), with a clear ending in mind.  Include possible foreshadowing elements with plot points.

Exercise 67

Recover a short story or chapter that you've already written, and highlight where foreshadowing has been used or identify where foreshadowing can strengthen the piece and revise accordingly.

Exercise 66

Write a paragraph that would appear just before the discovery of a body.  It might describe the character's approach or location or both.  The purpose is to hold a reader and propel them to the shocking event that follows.  (From Gardner's, The Art of Fiction.)

Exercise 65

Write a piece where the outcome is deliverately delayed. Reveal events slowly, mislead, incorporate the unexpected, then build to the final outcome. (From Rosier-Jones, So You Want to Write.)

Exercise 64

Think of ten clever or humorous twists of phrases, clichés or grammar.  Think one-liners, bumper stickers, greeting cards, or use familiar objects as prompts.

Exercise 63

Use some of the humour writing techniques suggested by McGuire or Jasheway to write a humorous piece about a real or imagined transitional stage of life, e.g., a new school, marriage, relocation.

Exercise 62

Think of a ‘normal’ action or object and insert it into a ‘normal’ situation or setting but one completely out of context (e.g., a pig riding an escalator, a nun sipping tea in a snowstorm, a human skull in a children’s playground).  Now, write a story that sets the scene and then goes on to provide a logical explanation for the incongruity.

Exercise 61

Make a list of characters with philosophical differences, e.g., a banker and bag-lady. Now use their differences to write a piece of dialogue between two of them. (From, So You Want to Write by Jean Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 60

Visit a different setting and experience it with all five senses.  Write down interesting sensations or observations that can be incorporated into other stories, or write a story on the experience itself. (From Rosier-Jones's So You Want to Write.)

Exercise 59

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg suggests visiting an unfamiliar place, or a familiar place with a different outlook (e.g., whilst wearing slippers, a cowboy hat, a tiara), and writing.  I'm looking forward to sitting in a cafe with a cigarette hanging from my mouth, even though I don't smoke.

Exercise 58

Think of three basic symbols (e.g., an axe, the sun, a set of golden dentures) and what they could mean. Develop characters, a plot and setting around them. (Adapted from the Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.)

Exercise 57

Write a story that includes at least one symbol that, in your mind, represents each of Jung's major archetypes.  (Adapted from So You Want to Write by Jean Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 56

Use personification in a descriptive passage about a natural object (rock, leaf, grass etc), a fruit or vegetable, and a kitchen utensil. Have the object in front of you and refer to it often.

Exercise 55

Personify a dog, the sea, a cloud, a derelict car, and a ship in a storm. (Taken directly from So You Want to Write by Joan Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 54

Write a letter to someone who is no longer in your life and say all the things you wish you had.  (Taken directly from So You Want to Write by Jean Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 53

Make up a short, original folk story / fairy tale or traditional ghost story that includes a) a snake, b) a flower, c) an orphan, d) a blind man, e) a magician, or a combination of these.  Rewrite it in modern terms, using modern forms where applicable (emails, texts etc).

Exercise 52

Spend the next hour at least, doing something that targets a writing goal.  Keep trekking, the view's worth it.

Exercise 51

This week I will revisit the writing goals I set in week 1.  I will give myself a pat on the back, for some... with a cattle-prod, for others.

Exercise 50

Think of, or consult your dictionary for ten words each that, in your mind, fall into the eleven groups listed in Week 25, that is, soft sounds, harsh sounds, unpleasant sounds, liquid sounds etc.  Think of how you can apply them to a story, or better yet, apply them.  For the 'distinctive' words (ref Clark), e.g., silouette, dynamite, glisten, try to find their etymologies (origins).

Exercise 49

Read aloud a sentence or paragraph you've writtern yourself.  Place a stressed symbol ( - ) above the long syllables and unstressed symbol ( ˘ ) for short syllables.  Experiment with how reordering a series, or rearranging the sentence or paragraph affects the rhythm, and decide on which suits the story best.  (Adapted from Gardner, The Art of Fiction.)

Exercise 48

So how did the fairytale princess and the biker dude turn out?  Rewrite the scene or description.  Remember to dig deep and reject first-level creativity.  

Exercise 47

Ramble for a page or two with the aim of including as many clichés as you can think of. (Taken from The Least You Should Know About English, by Teresa Ferster Glazier.)  Now go back and change the clichés to original thoughts and ideas, or if this proves difficult, say it straight.

Exercise 46

Write half a dozen phrases (or more) that start at one end of the abstraction ladder and ends at the other, or a passage that travels up and then down (or vice versa) the ladder.  (Reference: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark.)

Exercise 45

You are consumed with a) love, or b) hate.  Write a paragraph describing how you feel by linking these abstract ideas with concrete images.

Exercise 44

Think of a simple modern story (from a memory, news item etc) and retell it as a fairytale. Use symbolism (boss=evil witch, credit card=magic sword etc), customize vocabulary, and change sentence structure to add to the tone (e.g., "Call me Lancelot you may").

Exercise 43

Write a very long sentence (e.g., a page or more) using proper grammar.  Don't place semi-colons and commas where full-stops should be.  (Hint: a character's indecisive ponderings might be a good topic for this exercise.)  Reference: Gardner, The Art of Fiction.

Exercise 42

I will take out a story I have left unfinished and make myself finish it (as suggested by Joan Rosier-Jones in So You Want to Write).

Exercise 41

This week, I will write a mission statement for something I am writing, I intend to write or I would like to write. That is, I will explore what I would like to achieve through my story. (Borrowed from 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark.)

Exercise 40

Write an account of a point played between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova from the perspective of the tennis ball being played, or, write an account of the moonwalk as first performed by Michael Jackson from the perspective of one of his shoes.

Exercise 39

Explain the totally fictional origins of a famous (or not so famous) man-made landmark (e.g., The Great Wall of China was built to ‘keep out rabbits’).

Exercise 38

Open a thesaurus at a random page. Choose a word and write a story containing every synonym listed for that word (or if you don’t have access to a thesaurus, choose a simple word and use all the synonyms you can think of).

Exercise 37

Flip through a dictionary and choose six interesting words that are vaguely or not familiar to you. Now write a short passage that incorporates these words (after reading the definitions, of course).

Exercise 36

Make a list of book titles that appeal to you and think about why they are memorable. Go back through your stories and think of alternative titles, using the resources mentioned above as additional inspiration.

Exercise 35

Think of three titles for novels you’d like to write. Briefly describe the main character and the main source of conflict that you’d employ (either internal or external). Write a story based on the title and the characters you've created.

Exercise 34

Describe a setting from the perspective of a bird, without mentioning the bird.

Exercise 33

Write at least 500 words using the elements of setting (objects, landscape, weather etc), to enhance the reader's understanding of two characters and their relationship. Try different points of view to see how setting can further intensify the characters.

Exercise 32

Write a short piece of dialogue between (your perception of) any of the following: a) Sigmund Freud and Hannibal Lecter, b) David Beckham and Marie Curie, c) Zsa Zsa Gabor and Albert Einstein. Don’t worry about inaccuracies or time discrepancies (unless it is relevant to the conversation), make the exchange plausible, try it without using tags, and ensure that the conversation has a point.

Exercise 31

Write a piece of dialogue between a wife who is having an affair and a devoted husband who owes money as a result of a secret gambling addiction. Make the topic of conversation relevant to their secrets (eg. the wife wants to spend a weekend at an exclusive resort because she knows her lover will be there, but the husband knows they can’t afford it).

Exercise 30

Recover a story you wrote some time ago and read through it with the aim of identifying some of the 'common mistakes' discussed during Week 15. Now, see if edits or a rewrite improve the flow.

Exercise 29

Check out the stories posted for the weekly prompts on the Writer's Digest website: Look for some of the points raised above, and think about whether or not the writer could have presented his or her ideas more effectively. Provide a truthful and constructive comment if you think it might help the person improve. (Remember, these Common Mistakes are not rules, they are just ideas.)

Exercise 28

Write a simple short story as follows: put a man up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down. (Taken from a Creative Writing course I completed in 2011).

Exercise 27

List ten, suspenseful plot points that could be used as chapter endings for a) a romance novel, b) a thriller/suspense, and/or c) an adventure novel.

Exercise 26

From the story below (or another of your choice), end it with:
1. A line of description;
2. A line of dialogue;
3. A character's action;
4. A character's internal thought.
(This exercise is adapted from the article The Perfect Ending Writing Exercise, as it appears on Writer's Digest:

Exercise 25

Write a short happy story and make it ‘sad’ (tragic, shocking etc) in the very last sentence or write a sad story and make it ‘happy’(inspirational, heart-warming etc) in the final sentence. Be sure to plant the seeds of the ending in the lead-up.

Exercise 24

Write a first page (about 200 words) that includes introductions to a) the main character, b) the main conflict, and, c) the setting. Give only snippets of information on each and think about how the initial details will contribute to development of the overall plot.

Exercise 23

Write an opening paragraph (or two) that raises at least one question, eg. Why did he do that? Who is she talking about? How did he get into that situation? etc.

Exercise 22

Develop headings (or acts) for the three to six major parts of a novel, non-fiction piece or play. Now develop sub-headings or chapter titles (scenes) within these parts, and jot down key plot points under each chapter heading so that the story flows from one part to the next. (Hey, it worked for Shakespeare, didn't it?)

Exercise 21

For writing instinctually, take a novel (any novel), open it to page 22, look at the second sentence of the second paragraph (or thereabouts), paraphrase it, change names (if applicable) and use it as the opening sentence of a short story.

Exercise 20

Zooming out and in with your notebook camera, write a short description of a desert from the perspective of an Inuit or the arctic from the perspective of a Bedouin, noting both similarities and extreme differences of environment.

Exercise 19

Describe falling snow from the perspective of:
a.A mother who has lost a child (without mentioning the child, death or cause of death); or
b.A young man newly married and who has just been promoted in a job he loves (without mentioning marriage, his wife, his job or his promotion).
(Adapted from exercises in John Gardner's, The Art of Fiction).

Exercise 18

Think of a person you know or have known who has annoyed, angered, frustrated or depressed you. Write a paragraph that describes a specific action by that person which aroused (or does arouse) that emotion. Express it in first person present tense. Now rewrite it in third person past tense and decide which has a more effective tone.

Exercise 17

Use so-called 'writer's block' (or procrastination) to play around with point-of-view. Start by writing anything in first person present tense, e.g., "Here I am bored, and not knowing what to write." Turn it into second person, e.g.,"You can imagine how frustrating it is to want to write but finding your brain has turned to mush," or third person, e.g., "Harold was bored with staring at the computer screen..."
(Adapted from an exercise in The Art and Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis).

Exercise 16

Write a short piece based on one of your fears, physical or psychological (or both).

Exercise 15

Study your reflection in a mirror for a minute or two and then write about what you see, using whatever style you wish.

Exercise 14

Using the following table, describe a character with a secret from a) his or her perspective, and b) from the world’s perspective.

Exercise 13

Fill in strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relevant to a potential story, for a) a protagonist, and b) an antagonist:

Exercise 12

In a public place (again), eavesdrop on a conversation and write a scene or short story based on what you hear, concentrating on the individuals involved, what they say and how they say it, and their body language. Try to capture the 'mood' of the interaction.

Exercise 11

Observe a number of people in a public setting (supermarket, sporting event, etc) and write down cloudy adjectives that you think describe aspects of their personality (eg. rude, caring, serious etc). Now, write down the observations that led you to each conclusion.
(This exercise is from 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark).

Exercise 10

Build an imaginary relationship tree. Start with two or three characters (for shorter stories) and add more characters as your story gets more complex. Join the characters with lines and arrows and describe each relationship. Be as simple, serious, morbid or as ridiculous as you like. Jot down brief descriptions (looks, personality traits etc) and go on to outline a plot with chronological detail, based on your relationships.
Exercise 9

Choose and outline a sport or game that will represent your story and its characters. In the outline, start with any special setting requirements (eg outdoors, indoors, ocean, air), describe the type of playing field (eg. equestrian arena, bowling alley, chessboard), chose a main competitor and opponent and mention supporting players if relevant. Briefly describe or dotpoint the competition highlights and the final outcome. Now, parallel a story on this scenario.  

Exercise 8

Develop a simple plot outline based on one central character for a longer story or novel. Include: a) the main challenge or objective of the protagonist, b) the conflict, c) at least three crisis points, d) a climax, and e) a resolution. Parallel internal and external conflicts if you can. Simple line diagrams, dot points or charts can be used to do this exercise.

Exercise 7

Choose a plot idea from the lists provided during Week 4 and write a short story using traditional causal plotting (this leads to that). Try allegorical plotting that uses repetition of ideas through symbols.

Exercise 6

Working from left to right, use word association to fill in the blanks, and then select at least five words from the whole table to incorporate into a description, short story or outline of a longer story.


Exercise 5

Pick one (or more) word from each column and write a short story about or including these words.

Who                          What                           Where                          When

Astronaut              Depression                       Hell                       In the future
Mr Micklemaker       Magic                           House                    Middle Ages
Dancer                     Death                            Farm                            Now
Jane                         Music                     Distant galaxy                   1960’s
Detective             Mushrooms                 Jungle/forest                  Last week
Princess                 Elephant                           City                            1980’s

Exercise 4

Pick up the nearest newspaper, magazine or photograph. Choose a picture and apply a "what if...." scenario and write a short story. Concentrate on relating the tale rather than on grammar and spelling.

Exercise 3

Write quickly for 5 minutes. Don't stop to think or edit. Start with one of the following openings: "The night...," "My father...," or "Who could have known...?"Go!

Exercise 2

Write a piece about a distinct childhood memory. Be Honest - no one need read this!

Exercise 1

List ten writing goals for 2012. Break down as many as possible into details or steps and tentative timelines. (I plan to check on mine at the end of each month).

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