Last year, I compiled two articles sharing writing exercises from famous authors. Writing exercises give you a fantastic way to strengthen specific skills through deliberate practice. They can also help you spark new ideas for stories or memoir essays or blog posts (very helpful if you’re struggling with writer’s block!).
In response to the articles, a reader asked if I had ever read Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft, saying it was filled with a powerful set of writing exercises too.
Well, of course, I immediately put it on my to-read list. This past month I found a copy at my local library, and I dove in.
Le Guin was a sci-fi and fantasy author, but her book Steering the Craft is a useful guide for both fiction and nonfiction writers.
It deals with the nuts and bolts of the craft of writing and the subtle stylistic choices that will help you take your writing to the next level. For example, there’s a chapter on how to select the best point of view for your piece. Each chapter ends with several writing exercises so you can put into practice what you learned.
If you are an experienced writer, you will probably be familiar with much of the info in the chapters, but they can be a fantastic refresher on topics you might not have considered in a while.
And I think any writer will find the exercises useful. They encouraged me to break out of my usual style as I experimented with different narrative voices, etc.
I also love that Le Guin included passages from famous authors (Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, Zora Neale Hurston, and more!) to illustrate her points.
This would be a great book to use in a writing group or on your own or if you’re teaching a writing class. If you’d like to use it with younger writers, though, be aware that there is a paragraph in the fifth chapter where Le Guin drops two F-words to warn you against using them. Other than that, you could adapt the chapters to teach younger writers as well.
Here are my top three takeaways and favorite exercises:
1. Practice Hearing the Sound of Your Writing
Have you ever read a book with breathtaking descriptions? You felt immersed in the story. The writing was a joy to read — musical and rhythmic, carrying you forward from page to page.
Many of us will probably never write descriptions on the level of, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, but Le Guin says that all writers should work to refine the sound of their writing. She observes,
Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these common criticisms of narrative are all faults in the sound of it. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read…Its power and beauty come from the perfect placement and timing of the words, the music of their sound, and the way the changing sentence rhythms embody and express the emotions of the characters.
Often, we may not pay attention to the sound of our writing because we are trying to get the first draft down on paper. But when we go back to edit our piece, it’s important to be aware of how the writing will sound whether our audience reads it silently or out loud. Le Guin points out that even the names of characters (Dickens’ Uriah Heep) and places (Tolkien’s Lothlórien and Middle-Earth) can contribute to the beauty of the writing.
This fantastic quote by the writer Gary Provost that I shared in my article about how to create a captivating mood shows how varying sentence length can make writing musical:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Le Guin gives this exercise to practice developing the sound of your writing:
Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect — any kind of sound effect you like — but not rhyme or meter.
What I love about this exercise is that it gives you permission to run with your imagination and have fun playing with words. It would be a fantastic warm-up for any writing session.
2. Practice Eliminating Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs
I once read a piece of writing advice that said you should never, ever use adverbs. I think that’s over the top, but it is true that adjectives and adverbs are often unnecessary and weigh down our writing.
Le Guin writes,
Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and nourishing…They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused. When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid…Some adjectives and adverbs have become meaningless through literary overuse. Great seldom carries the weight it ought to carry. Suddenly seldom means anything at all…Somehow is a super-weasel, a word that betrays that the author didn’t want to bother thinking out the story — “Somehow she just knew…” “Somehow they made it to the asteroid.”
There are other words like “kind of” or “just” that we use to qualify our opinions and that weaken our writing too. Additionally, we might use adjectives that are redundant (“white snow”). Or we might use an adjective or adverb when we could use a synonym or a metaphor to make the description more vivid.
Le Guin gives this exercise to help you pay attention to whether an adjective or adverb is truly necessary:
Write a paragraph to a page (200–350 words) of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue. The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or an action using only verbs, nouns, pronouns, and articles. Adverbs of time (then, next, later, etc) may be necessary, but be sparing.
3. Practice Strengthening Your Invisible Exposition
Exposition is the background information your readers need in order to understand the context of your story.
For example, your story might open with a scene at a dinner table. Two characters are in the middle of a heated argument. You have to subtly insert who they are and why they are fighting without jarring the narrative pace of the scene.
Le Guin writes,
This is a skill science fiction and fantasy writers are keenly aware of, because they often have a great deal of information to convey that the reader has no way of knowing unless told…If the information is poured out as a lecture, barely concealed by some stupid device — “Oh, Captain, do tell me how the anti-matter dissimulator works!”…we have what science fiction writers call an Expository Lump. Crafty writers (in any genre) don’t allow Exposition to form Lumps…They break up the information, grind it fine, and make it into bricks to build the story with…invisible exposition.
Le Guin gives an exercise with several parts to help you practice invisible exposition. I’ll share three of the parts here. The first is for writing dialogue:
Tell a story and present two characters through dialogue alone. Write it like a play, with A and B as the characters’ names. No stage directions. No description of the characters.
Remember that your characters should not lecture or explain something in dialogue that they’d never say in real life. For example:
“Have you seen Diane, who I haven’t talked to in three days and who I’ve been friends with since fourth grade?”
Work the information in naturally.
“Have you seen Diane?”
“You know, the girl I introduced you to at the party.”
“Which girl? The one you said you’d known forever? Why would I have seen her?”
“I was just wondering if she’d stopped by the store while I was on my break. I haven’t heard from her in three days.”
The next exercise is to use invisible exposition to describe a setting. It is a fantastic exercises that will remind you that you should only describe something in your story in order to set a mood or drive the plot forward or convey important information about a character.
Describe a character by describing any place inhabited or frequented by that character…Give us evidences that build up into a consistent, coherent mood or atmosphere, from which we can infer…the absent person…A mere inventory of articles won’t do it, and will bore the reader. Every detail must tell.
LeGuin emphasizes that you should not describe any action or people during this exercise; this is the “stage without the actors on it; this is the camera panning before the action starts.”
Additionally, she gives an exercise to write a scene in which a process is described, either by a character or the narrator (this is a fantastic exercise for memoir writers):
Think of something you know how to do that involves a complex series of specific actions…If nothing comes to mind…look up a process…Write a scene, involving at least two people, in which this process is going on, either in the background of a conversation or as the locus of the action. Keep the description specific and concrete.
Again, the intention here is not to info-dump. Don’t have one character drone on and on about the steps of the process. Make it invisible.
These excerpts and exercises are just a taste of the treasure trove of advice you’ll find in Steering the Craft. The exercises are much more powerful when read in the context of the examples Le Guin provides. If you’re looking to strengthen your skills as a writer, I highly recommend getting a copy.
At one point in the book Le Guin observes,
[Practice is] a means toward the end of writing with skill and freedom in one’s own voice.
Practicing these exercises will definitely help you find your voice as a narrative writer.
And if you’re looking for more books to help you continue strengthening your skills, check out my article with twelve more of my favorite writing craft books.
Have you read Le Guin’s book? Which is your favorite exercise? Or do you have another writing craft book that you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments.
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