Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#1
I'm curious what challenges you've found that helped you become better writers.

For me it was a high school assignment that the students refereed to as "The Medici Papers," and it was one of the senior English teacher's more infamous lessons.

We were given a sheet of paper with a brief history of the House of Medici (an important Italian family during the 1400's) written on it.

She then told us to count the number of words on the page (around 300), and then increase it by 50. Then we brought it up to 400 words, and then 500.

After several days of this, she took back our original copies, and told us to bring the word count down to 250. By the end of the assignment, we were left with a single ten word sentence.

It was, in many ways, the best writing lesson I've ever had.

From it I learned:

1. How to rewrite a chapter without losing track of the original plot/theme/purpose.
2. How to write a sentence or paragraph in a way that makes it easier to work with later.
3. How to control my word count.
4. How to deal with the pain of editing and being forced to discard content that I was proud of.


What was it for the rest of you? What's a writing exercise you've done that you think we could all benefit from trying out?

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#2
Before I get to my post, I love that you had a teacher/professor who put you through that exercise. I wish I'd been able to experience that all those years ago. Very cool.

I'm not entirely sure these two things would constitute as exercises, but the two factors that contribute most to my writing are:

1) Begin writing something twenty to forty-five minutes before you intend to really write your main piece.

It takes me a decent chunk of time staring at the page, adjusting my playlist, starting to write, deleting it, writing again, looking back at some other words, etc. before I find a flow. I've found in recent years that if I start writing - often a totally different piece than my main story, and do that for twenty to forty-five minutes, that I'm able to get "in the zone". When that happens, I switch to my main piece, and I'm more often than not able to hit my targets, whether they be word count, scene completion, or something else.

In the past I'd feel like progress was random day to day. Some days I'd accomplish 500 words I was happy with, others I'd hit 3,500 or beyond.

Since adopting this practice, I can easily accomplish 2,000 words in the same time 500 used to take me, and occasionally go 4k+ during the same time I was writing 3,500.

2) Adding is easier than cutting, for me

This took a lot of time to really understand about myself. I wrote as much as anybody for academic projects in high school and college, but I wasn't writing fiction terribly much back then. It wasn't until 2011 that I started to devote time to my story ideas.

In the past nine years, one of my biggest takeaways as I look back on it all, is that it's much easier for me to finish a First Draft if I err on the side of too little, and plow through.  I would find myself resistant to cut entire scenes, and lines of dialog, after feedback from alpha and beta readers. Sometimes it was a worry that my final word count would be too short. Other times, it was because I had become attached the scenes or phrases.

I started changing the way I drafted my stories, and found that I much preferred feedback that said I should expand upon certain scenes, details, or dialog. It's fun to write, which is why I do it, and in this way my editing and revising included more of the fun part, and less of the cutting.

I still have to cut some things, but significantly less with this approach. Even the pieces I mark as "finished" here, are still technically drafts that I continue to work on offline.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#3
Character Sketches granted there seems to be variation of what this is or I'm calling it by the wrong name.


Looking online seems to suggest a character sketch is an essay about a character or they use it as an alternative wording to a character sheet. It's really neither of those things as you need the information that one might up in a character sheet established and it isn't an essay.

Usually a character sketch is you taking everything about a character and applying it in a quick situation where they can basically show who the are. And it's kind of organized like said essays where you want to start with introduction,  physical description, show them off as the character being themselves, and then conclude everything. So it's less an essay and more of a short story. There is no character development there either. It's them being them at their base. It's better to keep them in setting unless your one of those people who like putting your character in different scenarios. This is all about seeing how they work by practical means. I like to think of it as giving a character a test run before I commit to that version of a character.

This isn't something I do for every character. This is something I do with problematic ones or if I change something significant about them from what I initially planned and I can't get a good visual on them so to speak.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#4
Something I put myself through regularly is to take a sentence and find as many ways as I can to say the same thing, but also to see if there are subtle differences between them. As an example, your performance can be 'beyond expectations', 'sublime' or 'exemplary'. Each can carry a slightly different meaning, while still meaning the same.

Another one is sort of the opposite. Taking a sentence and, by changing only minor things, see how many different inflections i can give it

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#6
From one of my english classes in college, my favorite assignment was when my teacher had us take an orange and write out an essay describing it. She was pretty obtuse about it but she basically said "grab an orange, go home, and write about it." I think the limit was 3-4 pages so a lot of us had to stretch our fluff to the absolute limit and she was a real stickler because she made each and every one of us stand in front of the class and read it out loud.

I think about how most of my classmates stuck to discussing the outside of the orange, talking about it's appearance and smell. The assignment was the only time I actually put in any effort during school, I was only there for football and didn't really care about academics. And she liked mine enough to ask me for permission to use it as an example in her next textbook. 

It still sticks with me to this day when I'm having trouble trying to describe a scene. I'm not tryna toot my own horn or anything, just using it as an example. To this day I still think back to that assignment when I'm running through a scene that I'm writing and I end up with a bunch of different questions for myself. Would the scene play out better from this characters perspective or another? What else can I explore while not being too verbose? How mundane of a situation can I fit in before I flip it on its head? How out of the box can I go with my description while keeping it relatable?

It is definitely the only assignment I still remember to this day and actually use when I'm writing. 

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#7
That's an awesome exercise. I grew up hating the language classes. I was disallowed from speaking or reading english while stuck in a french school in an english locality. Then when I finally got to english classes in HS, I ended up with my religion teacher as my english teacher and we made each other's lives hell.

Her bottom 2 drawers of her desk were solely for the constant influx of books I'd bring to read during her class. She'd confiscate them and then I'd have to start a new series as that was my only copy of that book.

My best lesson learned from an evil woman was patience and keeping 40+ story lines straight between so many books. I hope it has allowed me to keep some of my own sub plots straight >.>

Sounds like some of you had real heroes in your lives and should cherish them or foster those great experiences on others within the RR community.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#8
Sounds like you have really interesting stories! I never had anything like that in school, now I kind of wish I had creative writing classes.

For me, it's pretty standard, but 'character interviews' can be really helpful. Just write down or record some questions, then put yourself in the character's mind and try to answer them in their voice. It helps with figuring out how they think and talk, but also their personality - what questions they would avoid, where they might have a different view on a past event than an objective narrator, and so on.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#9

Sii Wrote: From one of my english classes in college, my favorite assignment was when my teacher had us take an orange and write out an essay describing it. She was pretty obtuse about it but she basically said "grab an orange, go home, and write about it." I think the limit was 3-4 pages so a lot of us had to stretch our fluff to the absolute limit and she was a real stickler because she made each and every one of us stand in front of the class and read it out loud.


The orange! I had an instructor in high school who had us do that, and it's one of my go-to examples of a descriptive exercise! She gave us the hint that we didn't have to limit ourselves to exterior details, which helped.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#10

ferdielance Wrote: The orange! I had an instructor in high school who had us do that, and it's one of my go-to examples of a descriptive exercise! She gave us the hint that we didn't have to limit ourselves to exterior details, which helped.


Lucky, at least your teacher gave you a hint. Mine just told us to give it a long, hard look and make sure we hit our page quota lol.

But yes, I still think about that exercise all the time. It's become a sort of memory room for me, I break my scenes apart and figure out the most compelling viewpoints and what I could be talking about. I'd honestly recommend it as an exercise that would benefit all writers at some point in their writing careers. Being able to think outside the box while still within your box will make your writing so much more enjoyable. I've also used it to break myself out of writers block.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#12
Before I begin, it's been really interesting to read the previous posts (describe an orange? At first it sounded crazy, but the more I thought about it, I can see why their teacher used that exercise). For me, the two exercises I've used in recent years have been writing short stories for anthologies, and adapting the novels I've written into screenplays.

Screenwriting is hard (at least it was for me). You have to take a 400+ page novel and condense it into a 120 page (and no more) screenplay, where every piece of dialog has to drive the story forward, yet also sound natural and not stilted. Every action paragraph has to show the audience what's happening, but be written in a way that the person reading the screenplay will find interesting. I did it for about 3 years, made the finals in several competitions, and had a couple producers ask for more info, but never received any offers or had a film made. However, it helped me tremendously with rewriting, as you have to get to the heart of a story and decide what's important, and what's fluff.

Right about the time I'd decided to give up writing screenplays and return to normal writing, the Oaxaca film festival had the finalists do video pitches for their entries. Since I knew it would never be picked up, my friends helped me do a screenplay pitch with zombies (Warning: extreme silliness ahead) https://vimeo.com/72919235

The other has been writing short stories for themed anthologies, including ones where they provide characters with backgrounds and setting, but allow any genre (I just submitted to a wedding themed anthology a reboot of Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death ). These are stories that get my creative juices flowing, and if I'm hitting the wall on writing novels, I'll work on short stories instead for a while before returning to the longer work.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#13
The biggest piece of advice I got when I was learning how to write essays and other assignments, papers in college is that I don't have to write perfectly right away. The main thing is to start, even if the beginning is crumpled, and then edit along the way. I also loved when we were given the task to write an essay about the hero of any book, but what would this hero do nowadays and who he could be; great for training your imagination. Sometimes, when the tasks were very tedious I used more essay writing websites, as I did not want to waste time on some boring tasks. Also, you can read about some writing tips here as they also provide some interesting info. But I think that the best advice is - practice. You need to write at least a few sentences every day.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#16
Writing as fast as possible without holding any quality treshold what so ever. The pen shouldn't stop moving even if what comes out is nonsense. I've ended up with interesting starts and scenes this way, as well as thoughts that could later be turned into plot threads or one-liners. It's mostly garbage of course, but the point of the exercise is to just ignore the inner critic for a bit and get used to not thinking too hard about it. When I can out-write the little voice in my head that says "write this, in this way", I end up with interesting stuff.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#17
Not sure it counts as a "writing" exercise, but I learned a ton from making plot outlines of published novels.

More specifically writing, I always enjoyed an exercise where I would go to the library or bookstore, note down about 10 titles that caught my interest (of books I hadn't read) and I'd make a plot outline for each one describing what I thought would be the best book fitting that title.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#18
Honestly, it's taking a novel, and as you're reading, taking notes on all of the scene-by-scene shifts in narration (both what happened each scene and what the characters are doing). It's time-consuming, but you'll come out of it with a much stronger sense of where things go in your own story and how to set things up and be able to apply these observations to your writing. I don't do this on every story I read, but I do this on novels that match what I'm trying to write in my stories, which has helped me to see the flaws in my own writing and rewrite them.

Re: What Writing Exercises Have Helped You The Most?

#19
At first it was writing in my native language and translated everything via google. It was good learning experience for someone that doesn't know english well. I was also trying to copy style of other authors, and it worked rather fine

After I got more fluent and comfortable, I started searching up blogs with alternatives to words. I found one that was really good at explaining apart from providing alternative words, plus it had this like "Ways to describe beard" and other useful things like that. This helped me expand my vocabulary.
Here is a link to it, but keep in mind that blogs are messy and some content is locked behind a paywall: https://kathysteinemann.com/