Pianists practice scales to strengthen their skills like rhythm and timing. Artists might sketch a hundred human hands until they’ve mastered drawing that body part realistically. Dancers will practice a dance move countless times until their footwork and technique are flawless.
Just like those other artists, writers can sharpen specific skills through deliberate practice.
Are you struggling to write vivid descriptions? Or craft concise sentences?
In today’s post, I’m sharing five powerful creative writing exercises from famous authors that will help you practice those essential skills and many more.
Let’s get started.
1. The C. S. Lewis Exercise for Writing Vivid Description
In 1956, beloved fantasy writer C. S. Lewis replied to a letter from a young fan and shared his five rules for writing well.
You can read more about that letter in my article here and discover all five of Lewis’s writing rules.
The fourth rule in his letter makes for an excellent writing exercise:
Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
Here’s how to turn this into a writing exercise: Choose a final draft of a recent writing project or a draft you’re currently working on. Look for places where you describe something using only adjectives like “wonderful” or “terrible”. Try to replace them with vivid description.
Additionally, see if there are any places in your writing where you’ve described something with an adjective that is already understood in the noun, for example, “white snow.” Obviously, we all know that snow is white so the adjective is redundant.
Is there a more vivid way you could describe the snow? Perhaps with a metaphor or a simile that makes us feel as if we are seeing the snow for the first time? Or maybe the snow isn’t even white anymore but brown and muddy.
In my article here, I share three descriptive techniques that you can use to replace weak adjectives with more evocative words.
2. The Ernest Hemingway Exercise for Sharpening Your Observational Skills
In the 1930s, a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson traveled to Florida to see if he could get some writing advice from the author he idolized: Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway ended up inviting Samuelson along on a fishing trip and sharing writing advice during their time at sea. In this article, I detailed the three-step writing exercise Hemingway gave Samuelson.
Essentially, Hemingway challenged Samuelson to pick a situation to observe and then try to retell it on the page. For Samuelson, this was fishing. For you, it might be an event that happens when you’re commuting to work or shopping at a store or eating at a restaurant or playing with your kids.
Pretend you’re an artist heading out with your sketchbook to capture what you see and feel. Pay close attention to everything that is happening and the emotions that you experience.
Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping, remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped.
Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement.
Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five-finger exercise.
This exercise forces you to avoid vagueness in your writing. Don’t just tell us catching a fish is exciting. Be specific. Show us why.
3. The Damon Knight Exercise for Creating a Captivating Setting and Mood
No matter whether you’re writing a novel or you’re working on a story to include in a nonfiction book or in a speech or on a sales page, it’s essential that you set the right mood for your piece.
Establishing a mood will not only make your writing more enjoyable to read, but it will also help your readers connect emotionally with your words.
Usually, when we write, we’re trying to evoke a specific emotion in our audience. Maybe it’s fear or sadness or happiness or awe.
By creating a convincing mood, we give our readers cues for how they should feel. The mood also helps pull our readers right into the story, just like when you find yourself glued to the screen when you’re watching a suspenseful scene in a movie.
Award-winning sci-fi writer Damon Knight filled his book Creating Short Fiction with many helpful writing exercises. One of these he designed as a way to practice crafting a strong setting and mood:
Imagine a character who is sitting or standing, alone, in the room you are now in. See the room through his eyes; write a page or so of pure description of the room, without mentioning the character or referring to him in any way, but bearing in mind as you write that he has just had a phone call notifying him of a promotion and a raise. (Assume that the person lives here, if the room you are in is part of a house or apartment; if it isn’t, assume that the job has something to do with this room.) How does his emotional state color his perceptions? Remember that you are not allowed to refer to the character, even by using a pronoun (“I looked at the furniture,” for instance). Tell only what he sees.
Now describe the same room as seen by a person who has just had a phone call from a homicidal maniac: “I’m coming to kill you.” Follow the same rules as before.
This exercise is an excellent reminder to always tie your description back to the story or emotions of your character. Don’t just include description for the sake of description. Use it to set the mood.
In this article, I share more tips for how to create a captivating mood in your writing.
4. The Toni Morrison Exercise for Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone and Practicing Empathy
In an interview with NEA Arts Magazine, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison shared this exercise she gave to her writing students at Princeton,
When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that.’ First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? … Imagine it, create it.
I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence. I thought it was a good training for them. Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography, at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.
This exercise is a fantastic method for sharpening your skills at creating well-developed characters, no matter if you are writing fiction or nonfiction. It will also help you practice empathy, the ability to understand and be sensitive to the feelings of others, to be able to see the world through another person’s eyes.
You could use this exercise in conjunction with a list of questions like the Proust Questionnaire. Come up with a character completely unlike you and imagine how they might answer the questions.
Damon Knight has several similar exercises in his book,
Write a story about some painful episode in your own life, but transfer it to an invented person distinctly different from yourself. Change the character’s sex, age, occupation, or all three. Adapt the episode to your character’s nature and circumstances…
Think of someone in your past for whom you felt only anger and hatred. Write a story from the viewpoint of that person, treated with sympathy…
These exercises are designed to break you out of any easy rut you may have got yourself into — writing only about people of one sex, or only about pleasant things, or only about people who resemble you. Unless you force yourself to do difficult things, how will you grow?
5. The Jack Hart Exercise for Crafting Concise and Powerful Sentences
Finally, let’s conclude with a quick little editing exercise that will help you make your writing more precise and your sentences easier to read.
Any word that doesn’t advance a story slows it down. Which is reason enough to avoid expletives. Contrary to popular misconception, the term “expletive” refers to a whole class of empty words, not just gratuitous profanities. Most expletives simply fill out the syntax of sentences. The most common are “there are,” “there is,” “there was,” “it is,” “it was,” and so on.
Think about a sentence like “there were two airplanes on the runway.” What’s the “there” refer to, anyway? Nada. It just serves to turn “two airplanes on the runway” into a complete sentence.
You don’t violate any grammatical rule when you use an expletive, and each expletive is of no great consequence. But they pile up, and eventually they slow your storytelling.
Why not introduce a real verb that generates an image by writing, “two airplanes taxied on the runway” or “two airplanes idled on the runway,” or even “two airplanes sat on the runway”? …
Here’s how to turn this into an exercise: Take one of your recent drafts and go on a hunt to see how many empty words you can eliminate from your writing.
Hart observes that even a word like “began” might not be necessary to a sentence when describing action. For example, instead of writing “He began to walk around the room”, you could just write, “He walked around the room.”
You can often find empty words in phrases that use connecting words like at, by, for, in, it, of, to, and with. Here are some more examples.
Ray Bradbury once observed,
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.
These five exercises are a fantastic way to give your writing skills a workout. Through deliberate practice, you’ll take your writing to the next level, communicating your message more effectively and inspiring your readers.
Do you have another writing exercise from a famous author to add to my list? Let me know in the comments.
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