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When The Words Won't Flow: 5 Quick Writing Exercises to Get Started

When I was in college, I had a professor who was big on writing exercises. We did one at the start of each class, and while I admit I was a skeptic at first ("How will describing an apple really help me with this short story??") I ultimately grew to truly love the boost of energy a writing exercise can give me, especially on days when the words just won't flow.

So, now that I am a believer in the wonders of writing exercises, here are five fun, easy ones to try next time you're having trouble making the words flow.

1. One Letter, One Minute

This is the simplest writing exercise I've ever done, and it's my personal favorite when I'm having trouble just putting words on paper.  First, pick any letter of the alphabet or have someone else pick one for you at random. Next, set a timer for one minute (60 seconds). In the space of that minute, write as many words as you can that start with that letter. For instance, if you pick L, start writing all the words you can think of that start with L - like, lily, lunar, love, llama.  You get the point. Try to write as many words as you possibly can before the timer runs out.

I like to do this exercise two or three times when I'm struggling with words. It just opens up your mind and makes you focus on putting words on paper so that when you start writing, you've already sort of opened the dam.

2. Describe Your Surroundings

This is a fun exercise that will help you really focus on details you might normally miss.  Go to your backyard (or, if it's raining, pick a room with a nice window looking outside).  Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Now, for that fifteen minutes, write down everything you see around you. It doesn't need to be pretty prose - just write down every thing you notice, and don't let yourself stop until the timer is up. You'll probably feel like you've run out of things to write down before the timer goes off, but this means you need to look closer, at the things you might miss normally. It could be the exact color of the grass or a lady bug on the patio or a cloud that sort of looks like George Clooney's face - WHATEVER! Write it all and write for the whole fifteen minutes.  This gets the words flowing, but it also makes you start thinking about the small details, which might help when you start writing.

3. Make A Map

This exercise has several different incarnations, all of which I've used and liked.  Get out a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil.  You're going to draw a map of a house. I say "a" house because there are a few options here.  One is to true a map of your childhood house - the house you grew up in. Another is to draw a map of your main character's house. Or, if you lived in a different house as a teen than as a small child, draw a map of that house (this one is the one I liked the most since I moved a few times as a kid).  No matter what you draw, the exercise is still the same.

Draw the layout - mapping out each room to the best of your ability. Label the rooms, maybe even show where important things were/are (the couch, your bed, the dresser, etc).  This words best if you're mapping out a place you don't currently live.  It makes you really think back to another time period in your life (or put yourself in your character's shoes, if that's the route you take).  It's a fun, creative way to really spark some ideas and transport yourself out of the here and now.

4. Senses

This is another one that should transport you a little.  Think of a memory - it could be something that happened twenty years ago or something that happened this morning, but be sure it's a vivid, important memory. First, write down exactly what happened - the who, the what, the where.  Then write down you felt emotionally (happy, sad, angry). Once you've done that, we get to the challenge.

Write down each sense (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing) and try to fill in the blanks. So during that memory, what were you looking at? The carpet? The wallpaper? A TV? A person? What were you smelling? Grass? Perfume? You get the gist. Go through each sense and try to recall what you were experiencing.  Now, with all that done, try to write out the memory in prose form. Only using your five sense, convey what you were feeling emotionally (so without using words like sad, glad, etc).  This is an exercise in showing and not telling, and it also makes you think about sensory details.

5. Word Exclusion

Have trouble with cliches? This is the exercise for you.  Think of a topic - it could be one in your book or one you pick at random.  An example would be "the ocean."  Now, write down all the words you think of when you think of the ocean - "sea," "water," "waves," "sand," etc.  Once you have a list of all your common words, try to write a poem or a long paragraph about the topic you chose without using any of those words.  Yeah, this one is a bit tough, but it's a great way to make you start writing and also help you think outside of the standard cliche descriptions you want to avoid using.

So next time you feel stuck and the words just won't come out, give a few of these writing exercises a shot. Hopefully they'll open up your brain and get the words to pour out!

Are you a fan of writing exercises? If so, share your favorites in the comments! I know I'm always looking for suggestions of new things to try!
Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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  1. Although they may sound tedious, writing exercises can get the creative juices flowing. I love them.

    One of my favorites is you have to eat something ordinary, 3 different ways, like eating ice cream outside out of a strainer w/o your hands, in a martini glass with chopsticks, the tub with a fork in a dark closet. And then describe all 3 experiences using all 5 senses.

    Another, sit and stare at an object for 10 minutes before jotting down the description in an unlined journal (so you can draw and doodle). Then use a thesaurus to replace any boring, ordinary words like beautiful and soft.

  2. Love love LOVE this! I have major writer's block right now. And coincidentally, so are many of my 4th graders. "I don't know what to write about, Mrs. Kiyuna!" is a common statement in my class during our writer's workshop time. I think I'll use some of these to help us all! Thanks, Kody!

  3. These are really great! Sometimes it's so hard to get the writing going and it's nice to have a few exercises in my back pocket to get motivated with.

  4. I also go to 'Post Secret' ( pick one of the featured postcards and write back-story. Never fails, and I've got a few good short stories out of it.

  5. Great post! I've been having a lot of issues trying to make the words flow lately so I'm definitely going to bookmark this post! Thanks!

  6. I had a professor like that in college and I had the exact same reaction/revelation.

    Lately I've been enjoying to get myself going. They give you a word prompt and you have sixty seconds to write as much as you can. It's just short enough to keep up with and just enough to get my brain moving.


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