Writing question: Most useful excerise

Writing “exercises” may not sound very fun. Yet they can be invaluable tools to practice various techniques, to push yourself out of your normal writing habits, to open new doors of creativity, and to break the dam of a writer’s block. We asked Odyssey graduates to discuss the writing exercises they use and why, and here are the answers we received.

What’s the most useful writing exercise you’ve ever done?

Amy Tibbetts, class of 2004

The most useful writing exercise I’ve ever done was retyping pieces of published authors’ works. This was suggested to my class by George R.R. Martin, who likened it to apprentice painters’ retracing their masters’ brushstrokes to learn the craft of painting.

The idea is, you write out word for word (either by typing or longhand) a paragraph, passage, scene, chapter or even a whole short story from a published author. (I’ve heard that [Odyssey graduate] Dave Kirtley copied out the whole of James’s Joyce’s Ulysses–BY HAND!)

At first I doubted that much could be gained from what sounds like a simple yet tedious exercise. However, when I tried it, I quickly learned that by retyping, you absorb the “craft” in ways you can’t articulate. The flow of sentences into paragraphs and scenes, the shifts from description to dialogue to action, the rhythm of language–it all becomes innate.

More specifically, since at least some aspect of your own writing is already innate, you absorb a variety of new styles and techniques. The key is to retype examples of many different authors from many different genres, starting with authors that have a style similar to your own and moving on to authors with wildly different styles.

This exercise is recommended especially for those who struggle with style or smooth prose itself–which was not the case with me. Yet I still found it exceedingly helpful. I have accumulated a whole binder of retyped passages, and nowadays I usually copy out at least one scene from each novel I read.

You can probably learn about almost every aspect of writing from retyping. For example, I spent a while seeking out and retyping dialogue scenes, and then fight scenes, as I was struggling with both. Now I’m doing passages involving fear or danger to see how authors create a sense of terror and tension on the actual page.

Ashley Armstrong, class of 2002

The most useful writing exercise I’ve ever done–most useful because I still need it so badly it’s become a technique–was an assignment from my undergrad thesis advisor. I had a real problem with my inner editor, so she made me turn my computer monitor off while I write. If I can’t see what I’ve just written, I can’t nitpick it, and so I don’t get sidetracked from the scene as it is in my head.

Paul Schilling, class of 1999

I’ve been using the exercise where you count your adjectives, adverbs, etc. in the first 500 words of a novel except I have my students compare two novels instead of comparing one novel to their own. It’s how I learned that Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway use about the same number of adjectives and adverbs, as do J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens (twice the count of Austen and Hemingway). It’s the quality of the words, not the quantity of different kinds, that makes all the difference in the feel of the writing.

Cherie Wein, class of 1999

When I attended a meeting of the Maryland Romance Writers, the guest speaker put us through a very enjoyable exercise. First, we wrote down the answers to some probing questions she asked. She then had each of us choose a musical “instrument”; I think mine was some kind of feathered object. She played music and moved around while we kept rhythm. Finally, she gave us fifteen minutes to write something. Some people wrote journal entries. One lady wrote a scene she had been thinking about. I wrote a condensed version of a novel chapter. It was so much fun that I tried to find the lady again so she could conduct the exercise for one of my English composition classes, but I wasn’t able to locate her. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to lead the exercise myself, thinking I would not do as good a job as she did.

I believe this exercise opened up several areas of the mind’s creativity, thus enabling the writing to flow better.

Justin Howe, class of 2005

For me the best writing exercise is the most basic: automatic writing for a set time period. Generally I make this half an hour. In that time I do my best to continuously write (either typing or by hand) without back spacing or crossing out words.

It’s basic enough to do everyday and it keeps my butt in the chair. That gives me two good habits right there.

I hope St. Peter is noticing.

Shara Saunsaucie White, class of 2005

My favorite writing exercise happened in an undergrad creative writing class, and our instructor called it “The Dreaded Letter.” We had to write a letter to one person that just basically said EVERYTHING to that person that you’ve never had the nerve to say, the letter that–if you dropped it off in mail box at the post office, you’d kill yourself trying to get it back. The point behind the exercise was this: everything we put into those letters, the anger, the raw emotion, the passion, is what we should bring to our fiction each time we sit down to write.

It was a memorable lesson.

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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