No matter your medium, you’ve probably discovered that creative writing is one of the hardest forms of the craft. From the dreaded blank page to frustrating creative dead ends, there are plenty of reasons for your poem, story, or screenplay to find its eternal home in the proverbial desk drawer, never to see the light of day.
Fortunately, there are ways to break down the walls that prevent you from gaining ground on your work in progress and become a better writer. Here are 10 exercises that will help you alter your writing habits and unleash your creative potential.
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1. Freewrite and Brainstorm
Creative writing can be like parabolic flight, where everything skyrockets upward at first. But then the creative flow slows down until reaching a zero-gravity point. Then you fall into an abyss, without a clue what the next sentence will be.
These creative blocks are completely normal. The key is not to stop, get distracted, or leave your workspace with the excuse of “going to find inspiration.”
If you do these things, you’re giving up on the effort needed for creative progress.
Instead, leave your current line of thought and write out sentences or ideas that spontaneously pop into your mind. This is called freewriting. The point is to keep producing content, no matter what it is.
Isaac Asimov, famous for writing over 500 books, never stopped writing when he hit a dead end but simply switched to another writing project for a while. If you’re in a funk where you can’t write at the level of quality you want, quantity is the next best thing.
Another way to keep the juices flowing is to brainstorm. Start with a combination of two random words and use them as a starting point for a paragraph. Invent a new technology, character, animal, or style of architecture that you can possibly add to your story later.
You can get together with other writers and do brainstorming exercises, whether in-person or remotely. Every participant writes down a sentence or idea and then passes it to the next person who continues developing the idea until everyone has contributed to everyone else’s idea.
The result is a story that was written by group effort, and you never know what the exercise might shake loose in your imagination.
Writing practice involves creative flow, research, and editing. Enriching your mind with new information related to the piece you are working on is a great way to find new entry points to continue the text while avoiding jargon.
Gather a body of knowledge about different topics. Using very specific words in your descriptions can make your text more exciting. After all, who wants to read the word “gray” when there is titanium, pewter, anthracite, and meteorite?
Rather than developing in a linear fashion, the creative writing process is often chaotic. To streamline the process, use the snowflake method to establish a structured outline before the ink stains the paper.
At the core of the snowflake is a sentence describing the general idea. The next step is writing a paragraph or two to capture the main storyline, much like a back-cover blurb. Then, flesh out character profiles, including their abilities, weaknesses, personalities, intentions, transformations, and idiosyncrasies.
Next, layer in minor storylines pertaining to the main plot. It is also a good idea to jot down all details you want in the book, much like a shopping list. These can be anything including important objects, vehicles, outfits, hairstyles, scenes, and in-world works of art.
4. Physical Activity
Get out of your comfort zone and do a fitness session to give your brain the opportunity to come up with new ideas. A substantial body of scientific research suggests a link between body movement and creativity, and many writers can attest to that.
Reboot your mind by riding your bike through the forest or around your neighborhood, doing a bootcamp workout, or going distance running like writer Haruki Murakami does every morning.
Mind sports like chess and backgammon train your brain to make quicker and deeper connections, which is needed to adhere to your outline during the writing process and continuously consider alternative options and phrasings that better fit the storyline.
5. Explore the Work of Other Writers
To develop a great mind is to stand on the shoulders of giants. That may be a cliché, but it holds true. To discover your own writing style, it is best to process the works of icons.
If you want to improve your fiction writing, start with the works of Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Harry Mulisch, or Roald Dahl.
Analyze their sentence structure, dialogue, plotlines, scenes, characters, and pacing, and see how they trigger feeling and imagination. Absorb some of the elements and lace them into your own work, all the while considering what will make your writing unique.
6. Watch People
To find ideas for fresh storylines, go outside to watch people. Imagine what could go wrong or happen next. Is it funny, exciting, or an authentic slice of everyday life?
Meanwhile, take note of the surroundings: smells, sounds, conversations, plant life, architecture, art, and design. What do they convey and how can you convert these observations into a story?
And if you’re stuck inside, you can always substitute the real world by analyzing a movie.
7. Switch It Up
If you’re failing to express creativity on paper, add some to your life as a writer. Seek out a specific setting until you find one with the right stimuli. The library, park, beach, botanical garden, zoo, university campus, or even a public toilet can be a great place to find inspiration for new ideas.
Write when you are in a completely different mood or at unconventional hours. Vary your tools as well. Closing that laptop for a while and using a pen and paper instead can put your mind in a different place.
8. Use Assistive Tools
While artificial intelligence is a long way from emulating high-level human creativity, it helps to consult online tools:
- Wordtune puts the thesaurus in context by having an AI engine suggest alternative phrasings.
- Reverso offers similar rephrasing functionality based on big data.
- Jarvis creates SEO-optimized text entirely from scratch.
- Hemingway is another popular app that improves legibility and clarity.
- Scrivener and Milanote are text editors geared at novelists and add specific outlining tools for plot, characters, and settings.
- Sites like Writer and Grammarly have more robust grammar check capabilities than the standard text editor.
- Cold Turkey is a productivity tool that allows easily distracted writers to turn off all computer activity besides the plain text editor in front of them.
Add to that arsenal numerous other free tools such as random proverb, title, and plot generators, and it will get a lot easier for you to escape writer’s block.
9. Make It Snappy
Aspiring writers tend to forget that writing makes most sense when concise and to the point. Be careful with your word choice. Here are some writing tips to create short and sweet sentences. First, simplify wordy words. For example:
- In order to / so as to → to
- It happens to be → it is
- Due to the fact that → because
- Have to → must
- Nowadays → today
- In the case of → with
Adverbs, which are words like “quickly” or “loudly” that modify verbs, are often unnecessary and interrupt a natural language flow. Aiming for no more than three or four adverbs per page is a good target.
Only use them when they strengthen rather than clutter up the sentence. And watch for obvious redundancies like “deep abyss,” “flowing river,” or “burning fire.”
To practice brevity, write an advertising slogan, six-word story, newspaper headline that reports your book launch, or two-line poem. Add emotion, humor, or make an impact to change people’s attitudes toward a socially relevant topic.
Here are some examples in the right spirit:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn. – Ernest Hemingway
They make me so very curious. – Loesje
Went to my first job interview today
With a resume that is more of a to-do list. – based on Loesje
10. Stimulate the Reader’s Mind
Instead of rattling away at the keyboard to get your story from one event to the next, allow some parts to be more suggestive rather than literal.
Indirect expressions will enrich your craft and relieve it of staleness and superficiality without sounding flowery or lofty. Scour your text for literal statements and see if you can rewrite them in more imaginative or emotive ways that imply deeper meaning. For example:
- As usual, Lucy came home late from her tiresome job. → As usual, Lucy came home from work late feeling like her shoes were filled with lead.
- That night, Leah seduced Arty. → That night, Leah lured Arty into her web.
- After the funeral, Tom knew that her presence would never be gone. → After the funeral, Tom realized that a star may die, but her light lives on.
Indirect descriptions are also suitable for complex, beautiful, or hard-to-explain situations. A good writing exercise is to take such a situation and turn it into a short story revolving around themes, such as:
- Writing about going to an island to describe interactions with a comatose family member.
- A short story about a family cooking up a feast, but in the end it’s revealed that it’s meant as the last meal for the husband who is on death row.
- A children’s book about a fruit salad that requires some thought on the part of the reader to realize that the different fruits represent controversial politicians.
- Describing the birth of a child and cutting the umbilical cord, but in the end it’s implied that the story was about an astronaut’s accident involving a broken safety tether before he drifted into space.
Creative writing is all about finding your inner essence and unleashing your true creativity. Tools, techniques, and exercises are merely means to an end.
The most important thing is to keep writing and treat it professionally, never ceasing to inject effort for the job you need to get done. Eventually, whether you are a hobbyist or aspiring professional, it is likely some of your work will find an audience.