Writing Exercises

Misc short exercises

Write a description of a rural landscape, a city street, or a room. Use only active verbs to describe inanimate as well as animate tings. Use concrete and sensory details to make the description come alive.

Write about a boring situation. Convince your reader that the situation boring and that your characters are bored or boring or both. Fascinate the reader with your description of this boring situation. Use humor or other strategies. Do not use generalizations or judgments. Be specific and concrete.

Write about one of the following and “Show” the rhythm and functioning of the subject through the language and structure of the prose: a machine of some kind, a vehicle, a piece of music, something that goes in a circle, an avalanche…something else along these lines?


4 Qualities

Make a list of four qualities/characteristics that describe a character real or imagined. Place that character in a scene and write the scene so that the qualities are conveyed through significant detail. Use no generalizations and no judgments. No word on your list should appear in the scene. Use detail and description to SHOW the qualities through the scene and the actions of the character. Then turn the scene into a story with character(s), situation, setting, and etc.

Kim Barnes: “What is a Word Worth?” (from: http://www.chsbs.cmich.edu/Robert_Root/AWP/cnf.htm)

I often speak to my writing students about “bringing their intellect to bear” as they compose their personal essays.  What I mean by this is that the best literary nonfiction should work at a number of different levels, including the level of intellectual stimulation.  The problem we face as writers of nonfiction is how to challenge our individual stories–how to take the narrative itself and expand its breadth and reach to encompass more of the world.

One exercise that I use to help my students achieve this goal involves building an essay from a single word. First, the students each choose one word–any word–to which they are particularly drawn, a word that resonates for them.  A young man just discharged from the military chose “paratrooper”; a middle-aged woman of Scottish descent chose “bagpipes.”  I then require that the students write five sections of nonfiction revolving around this single word: The first, third, and fifth sections must be personal memories triggered by the word, and they must be written in present tense no matter the actual chronology; the second and fourth sections must be more analytical, intellectual, philosophical, and explore the word in a more scholarly way.  I direct the students to study the word’s derivation and history, or do research and write about some aspect of the word from sources, or write about ideas evoked by the word or research into the word. Students often find passages in outside texts that inform the word’s meaning in their own experience.  Some discuss the word’s appearance and use in contemporary literature or film. Some relate the word to other kinds of contemporary ideas or issues.

The goal of this exercise is to weave the word’s broader application into the writer’s personal experience.  Ideally, the five sections weave together and inform one another and bring to the essay a kind of intellectual unity as well as a greater depth and complexity.

Develop this material further. Decide how to focus the parts into an essay with a particular idea or message at the center. Organize by rearranging or otherwise working on the structure of the ideas. Expand from within each section or add more sections (both personal and sourced) to create an essay that goes into more thoughtful depth. You can organize the essay into sections, or take out the sections. This essay is open to creative endeavor in writing and presentation, but also should have a particular focus at its center. You may use any sources, texts, or etc. materials. Final Essay: 4-5 pages


Memory, Person, Place, Issue

Choose one of the following to focus on:

  • A memory from childhood;
  • A particular person from childhood or who has been intriguing to you or  important in your life;
  • An animal, place, phenomenon, issue, or etc. that intrigues you and you want to investigate further.

Then, write a detailed description that evokes every sense through the language you use to show this memory/person/phenomenon, without using the pronoun “I”; write at least 1-2 paragraphs.

Next continue or revise or expand what you have to turn it into a whole essay. You can add “I” or other characters and/or bring in other elements that will add to the work.