Writing Prompts, Exercises, and Practice

“Talent is the desire to practice.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell

“To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life.” ~ Natalie Goldberg

Would you ever enter a marathon without first beginning a cardiovascular and strength training routine?

Would you ever say that “someday, when you have enough time” you will play all of Chopin’s etudes, without also planning to learn and practice scales and otherwise work on your musical training?

If these scenarios sound ludicrous, consider how often we plunge into writing a play or a novel or a collection of poetry without also adding writing exercise to our routine (and then we wonder why we run out of steam early on). Or how often, when we tell others that we are writers, the response we hear is, “Oh, I plan to write a novel someday, when I have the time,” as if good writing needs no prior preparation or training, no work or practice.

For me, adding regular writing exercises or practice to my daily routine makes a huge difference in how much and how well I write. Making the time for ten or fifteen minutes of warm-up exercises before I dive into my current project is no different from beginning a physical workout with carefully chosen stretches, or starting a piano practice session by running through a progression of chords.

So, why do we so often resist this important part of our writing?

Perhaps it’s because we often view good writing as somehow “magical,” that it happens for no discernible reason, or that it comes from an unseen muse. After all, we can hear musicians play those scales. We watch athletes stretch their calves and shoulders. All we see writers do is scribble away on a piece of paper or tap on a keyboard. Just what are they doing, anyway?? Demystifying the vocation and process of writing often is the first step, for many writers, in finally realizing their goals and making writing a regular part of their life.

Are you interested in adding some writing prompts, exercises, or practice to your routine? Here are some definitions and resources to inform and inspire:

Writing Prompts are simply short textual or visual jumpstarts that give you an idea for what to write about. A textual prompt might be something like “It’s July 28th in the year 2020. Where are you and what are you doing?” See examples of online prompts at The One-Minute Writer and The Write Prompts. Poets & Writers offers weekly prompts for non-fiction, fiction and poetry at The Time Is Now. Photos also make terrific visual writing prompts.

I’ve used prompts often when I’ve led writing classes or workshops, especially as a way to initiate in-class freewriting at the beginning of a session. They are also good for overcoming temporary writer’s block and finding topics for blog or journal entries. For example, National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) gives bloggers daily ideas and motivation for what to post. You can browse the site as an unregistered reader or sign up to join “a group of people who have committed to updating their blogs once a day for an entire month.” Take a look at the daily prompts and writing prompt suggestions by readers. Also, check out Plinky. You don’t have to be a blogger to benefit from Plinky’s weekday writing prompts, but if you do have a WordPress.com blog, you can set up your Plinky account to post to your blog. WordPress.com also offers daily writing topics at The Daily Post.

Writing exercises are like musical scales and chords, or specific stretches or strength training exercises designed to improve a technique or skill. Whereas prompts are usually unconnected to your current project or goals, writing exercises are often chosen precisely because they help you to strengthen specific areas of your writing. For examples, see Write to Done’s 10 Best Creative Writing Exercises, or io9’s Three Science Fiction Writing Exercises. Writing exercises often also include prompts.

If you want writing exercises that target more specific writing skills, such as punctuation or paraphrasing, be sure to bookmark Purdue’s Online Writing Lab’s OWL Writing Exercises.

Finally, writing practice occurs when we consciously add routine and meaning to our writing, regardless of whether we write professionally or for our eyes only. One of the best books on this subject is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. It was one of the first books on writing I ever read, and I’ve read individual chapters more times than I have fingers to count.

Writing Down the Bones is about not just practicing writing so as to become a better writer, in the sense of the Malcolm Gladwell quotation above, but also making writing our practice, in the sense of disciplining the mind, or, in her words, “as a way to penetrate your life and become sane.”

You can read an excerpt from the expanded edition, where Natalie writes that her wish is for writing students to “come to know themselves, feel joy in expression, trust what they think. Once you connect with your mind, you are who you are and you’re free.” She continues,

“Believe me, you too, can find your place inside the huge terrain of writing. No one is so odd as to be left out.

Now, please, go. Write your asses off.”

For more information about Natalie Goldberg, visit her website and watch this video where she talks about her book Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir:

What are you waiting for? Begin the week by working up some writing sweat!

Post links updated as of September 22, 2015.

3 thoughts on “Writing Prompts, Exercises, and Practice

  1. This was enormously helpful. I have read it several times and am using it as a template for a little writing group I am starting. Thank you so much for all the links and for the well-written article.

    • Laura, thank you very much! I hadn’t looked at this point in awhile, and your comment allowed me to see that some of the links no longer worked (especially in the writing exercises paragraph, for some reason), and to update them. 🙂

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