Writing Exercises: Why do we use them, and do we need them?
There are some great stories of writing exercises out there that have changed writers’ lives, styles, even dreams. Some are simply interesting, and a few make you wonder why we do these at all.
In my final writing course, our professor brought out a bag of clementine oranges, dumped them in a basket, and told us each to take one and describe it so well that we would be able to pick it back out of the basket at the end of class. I remember mine was fairly symmetrical (not all were), had a bit more of a reddish tint, and – most distinctively – where the stem was broken off, one of the points on the green little star was twice as long as the others. I found my orange again. But was that useful?
We did a writing exercise at the start of class every week. Some authors use writing exercises and prompts for a kind of warm-up before getting into their current works in progress. Let’s be clear, though, a prompt and an exercise are not always the same.
The same day a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square, a prompt can be a writing exercise, but an exercise is not always a prompt.
Prompt: Write a story where a student has to convince her roommate to finish her project for her.
Exercise: Rewrite a scene to include a disagreement between two of your characters where one wants the other to compromise her integrity.
A prompt usually focuses on the creativity factor, filling in some of the blanks as a creative spring-board. An exercise tends to focus on a particular skill (which could be creativity) and direct the writing toward using that skill. Often, an exercise doesn’t yield a full story, or any narrative at all. The orange thing certainly didn’t, but it got us thinking about close description.
As exercises focus on skills, they can be used to both ask “can you do it?” and to push until you can. Writers tend to get wrapped up in their latest book or ongoing series. This can limit their continuing education and growth, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not learning. It’s just more haphazard and learn-as-you-go.
Writing exercises are like the studies done by painters, like brief sketches of a hand angle to better draw the hand as a whole. Some writers practice another author’s successful style, hoping some of it will rub off. Others work on their character development by writing the same scene, but from other perspectives or with characters in different positions.
Exercises, in this use, are personal rehearsals to get the skill up to performance level. They’re usually not beautiful. If they’re not difficult as well as interesting, then the project simply wastes time and effort. This waste of time is the most common excuse for not searching out and actually doing exercises. Why write something you’ll never publish? Or why write if it’s not going to be good?
By nature, a writing exercise pushes into new territory. In many cases, especially in a classroom setting, the topic and focus are assigned, so the experience has many of the same benefits of trying a new activity or going to a new location. It could be just the inspiration needed to push through a block or start a new project. Making strides into new skills, techniques, styles, and forms fuels the creative fire. Writers who are consistently pushing and learning rarely want for material.
While the time you spend writing with an exercise isn’t time producing for your current work in progress, it’s an investment in your creative source, your skills toolbox, and your day’s creative flow. Of course, this is if you’ve found your right direction to push.