The Pros and Cons of Writing Exercises

I am of two minds on writing exercises when it comes to fiction. On the one hand, I can see how they can spark creativity, and how they may help someone to develop a certain technique. On the other hand, I hate them—anything about writing that’s contrived does not sit well with me.

As with most things in writing and life, there are benefits and drawbacks to writing exercises. They can produce good results, no doubt. They can also be leaned on like a crutch, allowing a person to say they have written something without fully diving into their own original content. I’d like to explore all of that here, and try to come to some kind of conclusion about the best ways for a fiction writer to use writing exercises.

I see the most benefits from writing exercises in the realm of practicing a technique or applying a piece of writing theory. For example, getting rid of excessive language or information in a passage. 

While some prose styles are more mandarin than others, and some stories require more detail, whatever the writer’s goal there’s often a tendency to overwrite relative to that goal. I see this all the time with my students—and I’ve done it plenty in my own writing life—so I often assign an exercise called “Occam’s Razor.” In it, I ask students to take a passage of 500 words and rewrite it in 250 words without losing any essential information.

Occam’s Razor is originally a scientific term that means, basically, if the end results are the same, then the simplest way to achieve those results is preferable. It’s not so different with writing. If you can achieve your goals with fewer words, that’s preferable.

On the one hand, I can see how [writing exercises] can spark creativity... On the other hand...anything about writing that’s contrived does not sit well with me.

Halving the number of words is extreme, no doubt. And the results are often stunted, leaving nothing worth keeping. The point is not to say that you should condense every story you’ve ever written to make it half the length—that would be ridiculous. But going through that exercise with a shorter passage forces you to make decisions about what is and isn’t necessary for achieving what you want to with your story. It doesn’t make everyone a minimalist. It helps make you a more refined version of what you want to be.

Another exercise that’s yielded good results, and focuses more on content than style, is called “Garden Making.” I did not create this, but I can’t remember where I got it from, so if someone knows the original source, please let me know. The exercise asks you to write about someone grieving a significant loss, but to only show their grief by how they make something (a metaphorical garden). The benefit here is that it forces you to focus on actions, on showing, often on something physical, and rely a little less on adjectives and adverbs in a situation where those words have less effect.

As with the previous exercise, or any exercise really, the results can be oddly contrived relative to a more organically written story. But the point is to train your mind to focus on using action to achieve effects in your fiction. It’s particularly good for younger writers, or those new to the craft who are picking up that basic “show don’t tell” mentality. But really, everyone can use a refresher.

When writing exercises become about producing content as opposed to developing a skill, the results can become more iffy. Sometimes writers use exercises to spark their creativity and begin a story. Other times writers will approach an exercise for another reason, like working on a technique, and then find that they want to create a full story from the results. In my experience, both as a writer and as a teacher, exercises don’t yield great results for full stories. Most often, it is difficult to let the exercise go and write a story that doesn’t feel too contrived. Writing that begins artificially often cannot ever be made to seem organic.

For example, I recently had a student turn in an exercise wherein characters had to communicate something nonverbally. Over the course of two pages, this exercise is useful for developing the technique of representing communication outside of dialogue, which is important. But it also tends to read strangely. Nonverbal communication in the context of a story usually takes place over just a few lines, not a few pages. So the exercise is an exaggeration to help work on a specific skill.

When the student tried to turn this exercise into a story, the piece was a bit of a slog. The conceit was two characters communicating their attraction to one another without saying so, or saying anything. Again, over a few lines this can be great, especially when interspersed with other action and dialogue. But by itself, it does not make a story. And so while the exercise this student turned in was excellent, the resulting story was not their best work. I would say that anyone who wants to turn a writing exercise into a full story should start over with a blank page and think more about the purpose of the story than the purpose of the exercise. That is sometimes a difficult transition, but it is often the only way to get a good finished product.

The content I see as being most useful comes from the realm of iceberg writing. For those who haven’t heard that term, it’s the writing you do in order to better understand a character or situation, but which doesn’t have a place in the story proper. The part of the iceberg that’s under the water.

When tasked specifically with writing something you have no intention of including, the results tend to be excellent. Some sort of pressure seems to be removed, and ideas flow freely. No one else is ever going to see this work, and because of that writers tend to explore backgrounds, histories, and textures that fill things out in their own imaginations and allow for a much better final product. Often there are snippets that do end up finding a home in the finished draft—more details than anything else, but important ones. And I have seen more of these turned into stand alone stories, completely removed from the original, than any other writing exercise.

In my experience, then, writing exercises are better used to develop techniques than to produce content. That’s not to say this is a rule—the only rule of writing is that when it works it works—but I’ve taught thousands of students over the years, so I’m confident my conclusion is a good guide regarding what you can expect when approaching a writing exercise. Knowing what to expect can help prevent frustration, and ultimately get you to the end result that we’re all seeking: a good story.

Joshua Isard

Column by Joshua Isard

Joshua Isard is the author of a novel, Conquistador of the Useless (Cinco Puntos Press), and his stories have appeared in numerous journals including The Broadkill Review, New Pop Lit, and Cleaver. He studied at Temple University, The University of Edinburgh, and University College London.

Joshua directs Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife, two children, and two cats.

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