10 Exercises to Become a Better Writer
It’s true that practice makes perfect, so if you want to polish your writing abilities and become a better writer, the best thing to do is — you guessed it — practice! From creating your setting to beating writer’s block, we share ten exercises that can help you sharpen your skillset. Some of these come from different Reedsy Learning courses, so be sure to sign up to get even more advice, all by trade professionals, in your inbox each morning.
Exercise 1: Change the Scenery — With Writing Prompts
There are very few things as frustrating as a bad case of writer’s block. But don’t despair! Instead of getting frustrated with it, try a change of scenery. Not literally (although that might also help) — do it with your writing.
Activity: If your own story isn’t getting the creative juices flowing, using writing prompts or a story generator can help you break through the slump. This can help you change your mindset and any expectations you might have from what you are currently writing. Have some fun with it! Here are a couple of examples to get you started:
An accident during an experiment freezes you in time in public, completely invulnerable. Millennia later, you come out of stasis to find entire cultures centered upon your statuesque presence throughout their history. via /r/writingprompts
On your path you meet two guards, one who always answers in sarcasm and one who answers a question with a question. via /r/writingprompts
Goal: Use writing prompts and short story ideas to get your creative juices flowing with a change of scenery that can help you clear out the block.
Exercise 2: Create character profiles
Creating multifaceted and complex characters is something that takes time and effort, and it only gets trickier the more characters your story has. For readers to connect with your characters, you, the author, need to understand who they are and what motivates them. Easier said than done, but this exercise might help.
Activity: Create character profiles for as many characters as you need. This can help you see the differences between them and give you a unique perspective on each of them. Going beyond their basic information and physical appearance can give you a greater understanding of what drives them and can help you capture their voice and point of view in an authentic way.
Goal: Give characters their own unique voice, goals, wants, and needs.
Exercise 3: Read out loud
Have you read books that sound too stiff? Or dialogue that's awkward and sentences that seem to have been spouted by a thesaurus? If you ever watched Friends, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We all love Joey, but don’t follow his example and say, “They’re humid, prepossessing homosapiens with full sized aortic pumps,” when you mean to say, “They’re warm, nice people with big hearts.” It is important to make sure that what you are writing makes sense and sounds natural. Activity: Read your writing out loud, both to yourself and others. It can help you catch mistakes and weird wording — which can hurt your story. It’s better to write like you talk than to try to sound like someone you are not. Goal: Put your personal touch, style, and voice on your writing. It’ll make writing more enjoyable for you and reading more enjoyable for your audience.
Exercise 4: Use ALL of your Senses
Show, don’t tell. While the advice is very true and relevant, it’s a vastly overused sentence that, for better or for worse, doesn’t provide any insight as to actually go about doing it correctly. Here is an exercise to get you started on the right path.
Activity: Choose a place. It can be anyplace — from your own teenage bedroom to a market in a fictitious town. Then use ALL of your five senses to describe it. Write down how it looks, how it smells, what you hear, what you can touch, what you can taste.
Goal: Add dimension to your story and learn how to show readers, rather than tell them, the world you have created.
Exercise 5: Rewrite a Scene - Using Dialogue
Writing dialogue is a challenging but (mostly) necessary part of writing a story. Whether you are writing a short story or a series of books, great dialogue will pull readers into the story and move it along. In her dialogue writing course, author Bridget McNulty provides insight into the art of compelling dialogue. Here is an exercise she recommends.
Activity: Imagine a scenario where two people are talking. It can be one that takes place within your story or you can use the following one.
Characters Jenna and Alice receive news about their friend Hannah, putting their holiday plans on hold. Write a brief extract of dialogue between the first two friends. First, write it as an info dump deliberately. Make them share information they both already know about Hannah’s situation. Then rewrite the same exchange four times. First, rewrite it as an argument. Next, rewrite the piece as a fact-comparing dialogue. Thirdly, make one character not know the bad news. Fourth, rewrite the plot exposition as narration, not dialogue.
Goal: The idea is to help you write flowing dialogue that doesn’t feel forced or stiff while also progressing your story.
Exercise 6: Peel back the top layer
What do you want to write about? Editor Laura Mae Isaacman says that short stories can make you a better writer because they teach you to be focused, pointed, and concise. In her short story course she urges writers to consider what they are attempting to uncover with their story. What’s below the surface is often the most important part of your story, but finding it is not always easy. Here is one of the exercises she uses to explore that.
Activity: Reread two of your favorite short stories — it can be either one that you wrote and one that you read or two that you read. Write a one-sentence description of what literally happens in the stories and then write a one-sentence description of what is being explored below the surface:
- How these undertones manifest through plot.
- Where and how do they appear? Is it through mood, character description, dialogue?
- Where are these elements subtle and where are they most obvious?
Goal: The first step to changing the way you write stories us learning how to perceive them.
Exercise 7: Mine your emotional memory
As a writer, it’s only natural to put part of yourself and your own life on your writing and it can influence the plot, characters, and the nuances of your story. Your experiences and emotions, your point of view, your expectations: all these can provide great depth to your stories. Isaacman offers another great exercise to help you mine your emotional memory.
Activity: Think about a time you’ve been wronged, embarrassed, or pressured. Write a few sentences about how a certain event affected your friendships, performance at work, or attitude. Did you become short-tempered, passive-aggressive, forgetful, or disoriented?
Goal: As Isaacman states, “If you think about what that road of emotions looks like for you, you can begin to mold the details and direction of your story, making it easier to map it out, and keep it interesting and true.” If you want to write a story that readers can relate to, this is a great way to learn how to do it.
Exercise 8: Create a Line Graph
A major part of writing your story is your plot and its pacing. Make it too hectic and it won’t leave any respite for thought. Make it too slow and it will be boring. Author Ben Galley includes an exercise on his novel writing course that can help you with this.
Activity: Draw a simple line graph to chart the rise and fall of your plot’s pacing. This can give you a visual representation of the action in your story. If it’s too linear — or if the rises and falls are in the wrong places — you can change them or create something new.
Goal: Visualizing your plot can help you determine if a change of pace is needed. It can also help you address any issues on time.
Exercise 9: Brain Dump
Ever experience a time when you need to write but aren’t quite sure how to get started. There might be so many ideas in your head — but they refuse to come out in a way that makes any sense. Writing coach Azul Terronez shares a strategy he uses to get writers started in his non-fiction writing course.
Activity: Step #1: Build the web. First, get a single sheet of paper and your book’s main idea in the middle. Then, from the central draw several lines radiating out toward the edges of the paper like a spider’s web. Along those web lines, jot down everything that comes to mind about and around the topic. Write a word, a phrase, just enough to remember the topic. If you can’t put it into words, sketch it! At this point, everything is valid to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page. This will help you organize your thoughts.
Step #2: Group your topics. Look at the web you’ve just created and, on a separate page, group all the categories and topics that seem to go together. If while doing this you discover that you forgot to write something doing during the previous step, go ahead and add it. As Azul says, “The biggest block to writing is not that you have too little to say, it’s usually that you have too much.”
Step #3: Use your categories to create a detailed outline. Once you have finish grouping your topics, you’ll need to structure each section by writing everything you have for each category. Don’t worry about sounding smart or making the sentences compelling, this is just you telling a friend everything you know about the topic.
Set a timer for each section and write everything you can, then move to the next category. If you get stuck on a particular topic, try doing a brain dump focusing on it.
Goal: Even if it takes you some time to complete, this exercise can help you empty your head of all your ideas and help you focus solely on writing. Once you have your ideas out of your head and on the page, organizing them will be much easier.
Exercise 10: Freewriting
One of the occupational hazards of being a writer is writer’s block. We can all agree that it’s difficult to get any ideas on paper when nothing seems to want to come out. But don’t fear: there are many ways to overcome it. Bec Evans and Chris Smith from Prolifiko show a tried-and-tested method to push through that wall in their writing routine course.
Activity: As the name suggests, this exercise consists of letting yourself write freely — there are no rules! Put aside 15 minutes of your day and let the ideas flow. Write whatever is in your head. Don’t edit. Don’t consider your words. Don’t wait for that one beautiful sentence to appear. And, above all, don’t let your inner critic show its ugly face. Just write!
Goal: What you write may not be pretty and it may not make much sense, but it will exercise your creative muscle and get your ideas out of your head and onto the page.
Need more exercises to get your writing going? Check out this directory with over 100 exercises that cover topics from character development to writer’s block.
As English author, PD James once said: “Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it that we develop our own style.” Developing your writing skills doesn’t happen overnight, but exercising your writing muscle is the one tried and true way to become a better writer and reach your writing goals.
What are some of your favorite exercises to become a better writer? Add yours in the comments below!