All creatives (musicians, artists, and dancers) practice their skills–writers should as well. And they can do that by incorporating writing exercises into their every day routine. This will help them sharpen their ability and tell a better story. I’ve listed five exercises below, but there are more online.

  1. Take a blank sheet and start freewriting. Just write whatever comes to mind. Don’t stop to edit or think about what you’re writing. Let your brain lead as your hands write.
  2. Take a scene from a favorite book or movie and change the point of view or timeline so that you’re retelling the story. Use a secondary character to describe the action happening to the main character. If the story is set in contemporary times, change it to the wild west, or the medieval period. How does the story change? How does the different time change what happens?
  3. Use a writing prompt (a sentence or short passage) as a springboard to create a new story.
  4. Write a short story using 75-2000 words (flash fiction). Use the same elements as you would a longer story, giving it a beginning, a middle and an ending. Develop a main character and write the piece around them. Because you’re limited in your word count, choose a conflict and start in the middle of the action. You can reveal a back story as you go along. In the end, resolve the problem and present a character change that will complete your piece and make it a story.
  5. Make someone else’s story your own. Use a story that someone else has told you or that you read; and write it as if it happened to you. What details would you include? How would you feel?

Not a whole time is needed on these or any exercises, but the more practice a writer can devote to practice, the better a writer they will become.

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The Writing Process

I was perusing the internet the other day and came across an advertisement for the Master Class courses out there, that include guest teachings from Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood and the like. This one included Dan Brown and I took the bait and clicked on it. While it was the normal, “Hey, you’ll learn this and that when you pay us this much money,” I found the sound bites from Mr. Brown interesting. This is one of them:

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When I started out writing, I mostly guessed at what I was doing. Now I understand there is a process, which helps us beyond the initial idea. That’s where the (actual) writing process comes in. This process involves anywhere from three to seven steps, depending on who your ask, but the key steps are these:

  1. Pre-writing is anything you do before you write a draft of your document, including thinking, taking notes, talking to others, brainstorming, outlining, and gathering information.
  2. Drafting or writing occurs when you put your ideas into sentences and paragraphs. In this stage, you concentrate on explaining, supporting and expanding your ideas.
  3. Revision is where you think more deeply about your readers’ needs and expectations; and you rearrange, add, take away and or replace your words so that your message is clear.
  4. Editing involves grammar, mechanics, and spelling. But you should not edit until the other steps have been completed.

Like I said, there are other steps out there, but these are the ones everyone can agree on. And they are the road map for writing. I’ve been guilty of skipping a step or two in the past…or at least trying to, but when a step is omitted, or it’s out of order, it throws the whole process off. Trust the process. In writing, but also life. That’s how Mr. Brown ended his talk: he said, “There were days that I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this. That’s when the process saved me.”

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Story Trumps Structure

“Tell the story that’s been growing in your heart, the characters you can’t keep out of your head, the tale that speaks to you, that pops into your head during your daily commute, that wakes you up in the morning.” -Jennifer Weiner

Story always trumps structure. Outlining and plotting a story are necessary steps in writing; however, they can end up derailing the process if they are the driving force. Follow the organic process of story shaping, and let the story inform the direction of your writing. Spend time on your character development and they will tell the story for you. Fear and uncertainty will always drive you back to the outline, but part of the artistic process is learning to how to channel that fear into creativity and not confine yourself because of it.

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Show, Don’t Tell

“In descriptions of Nature, one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture.” Anton Chekhov

This quote by the Russian playwright, and variations of it, became the basis for the ‘Show, don’t tell’ technique used in various kinds of storytelling. ‘Show, don’t tell’ describes writing by showing the actions, relationships and feelings instead of just telling the reader what happened. It allows the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings, describing the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.

So what can you do to implement ‘show, don’t tell’ in your writing?

  • Use the character’s five senses.
  • Use strong verbs.
  • Avoid adverbs.
  • Be specific.
  • Use dialogue.
  • Focus on actions and reactions.

This technique applies equally to nonfiction and fiction, including poetry, speech, film and plays and public speaking. Think about how you can show your audience what you want to share with them; and by doing so, you will keep a captivated audience that will stick with you to the end.

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Learn How To Take Criticism

When you set out to write, one of the best things for you to learn is how to take criticism. To do that, you need to listen and take notes. Hear what’s being said and understand if and how it’s applicable to not just what you’re writing, but how you write. Use the criticism to become a better writer, but be careful of the source.

Early in my career (back before everyone had computers), I was looking for a job and had sent out resumes by mail. One person sent it back, having circled all the errors. No other comments were made though. I was younger and hurt by the situation, instead of seeing it for what it was: someone with too much time on their hands.

Contrast that to when I was writing my second book. I asked my sister to read and comment on it. And she did. She had plenty to say and not all of it was good. I had to rewrite several portions of the book. But here’s the thing, I’ve been able to use her comments not just for that book, but for the subsequent ones I have written. I’ve become a better writer because of her critiques.

So be mindful of what is being said and by whom. And if the commentator is sincere, embrace the critiques and use them to better yourself and your craft.

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