Three Good Places to Learn About Grammar: The Grammarist;
Grammar Girl;The Center for Writing Studies
I am a veteran teacher of writing from university level to little kids. I offer these writing exercises in the spirit of the Internet as a place for (as well as commerce and publicity!) a community of sharing and exchange.
I call them "exercises" rather than "prompts" or "lessons" because I think of them as ways to strengthen the writing muscles that you already have and as ways to expand your range of techniques. The exercises are free, but if you want to give something back, please take a look at my books or read some of my online fiction.
I also teach occasional private online classes as well as public classes at New York University's School of Professional Studies. Finally, I have a free newsletter about reading and writing that you can get by filling out the following form:
The newsletter is also online at Books for Readers .
Use the detailed description of a familiar place written to make it feel new (see below for the exercise) as the setting for a mystery. The mystery could be simply a wondering question about who or what inhabits/uses this place, or something humorous about something lost or an animal story.
Or--you might try it as the setting for an actual murder mystery.
More writing exercises below and in archives. How about a few notes on grammar and word usage?
More Free Writing Exercises below and here :
Exercises 1- 20
Exercises 21- 40
Exercises 41 - 60
Exercises 101 - 120
Exercises 121 - 140
Exercises 141 - 160
Exercises 161 - 180
Exercises 181 - 200
Exercises 201 - 240
Exercises 241 - 260
Exercises 261 - 300
"When I first moved to Kentucky from the West Coast, I was startled to hear a man say he was wearing a toboggan. I grew up calling the kind of hat he wore a stocking cap. I thought of a toboggan as a sled (which made for an interesting mental image). I was equally baffled by "Do what?" when it was used to mean "Excuse me, I don't understand." Language differs from region to region. Which words do you use? Sofa, couch, davenport, settee Pop, soda, soda pop, Coke Hero, sub, hoagie, grinder, po'boy Bathroom, restroom, toilet, WC, facility Tennis shoes, sneakers, trainers, running shoes
"Savvy writers can put such regional differences in language to good use. Rather than try to use dialect (which can be hard to write, hard to read, and possibly offensive), use word choice, contractions, slang, and regionalisms to show where your characters are from, level of education, place in social hierarchy, and more."
Article from Writers Digest on Underlining Titles Versus Quotation Marks
These Hints from various sources, but especial thanks to Susan Spann on Chuck Wendig's blog Terrible Minds.
These don't seem to be to be unbreakable rules so much as a sensible baseline for your creativity:
Avoid a lot of backstory
Have a death by page 50 (First big scene--discovery of the corpse!)
You need several suspects: at least three, maybe four. Consider who might want the victim dead, who had the opportunity/means to kill. Be realistic, but have at least one who isn't obvious.
The suspects aren't all necessarily telling the truth, but only one is the killer.
Clues: Include (1) Real clues that help the sleuth solve the crime; (2) red herrings or fake clues that point to someone other than the real killer; (3) Most Important clues, the ones that give the important information for solving the crime.
Plot points: Sleuth identifies killer about halfway through (and story moves on to proving how and why). But the sleuth turns out to have been wrong at least once. Sleuth has serious problems, falls in a hole. Finally gets back on track.
Second big scene: the killer is identified: the sleuth explains motive, what happened, ties up clues as well as exposes killer's identity.
A lot of readers like to figure it out just before sleuth does.
I went through a period of looking up a lot of words, especially for their etymology. I loved Indo-European roots, and discoveries like the fact that the words "black" in English and "blanco" in Spanish go way back to the same Indo-European word for lightning or maybe blaze: brilliant white light that leaves things charred black.
I was less interested in usage, which brings up judgements about right and wrong and when change is good and when it is only inevitable.
Recently I was going over a manuscript for a colleague, and came across a passage in which the narrator is on a walking pilgrimage and bares her feet to protect a developing blister with moleskin: "The other pilgrims were nonplussed," she writes. "One nodded sympathetically and one asked to borrow my scissors." These sentences completely nonplussed me. They didn't seem to match. If the other pilgrims were so shocked by her bare feet, why were they calmly asking to borrow the scissors?
Looking up words in the Internet age is far quicker than it used to be, although it has lost some of the comforting ritual that came with dragging down Eric Partridge's Origins or pulling out the magnifying glass for the compact OED. Within seconds, I had Googled "nonplussed," and the first definition was just what I expected, suggesting that my colleague was misusing the word: "surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react."
But wait! There was a second definition, labeled as a "North American" usage. Since my colleague is Canadian, I thought maybe that was going to be the explanation, a Canadian usage. The second definition was "not disconcerted, unperturbed"– pretty much the opposite of how I understood the word. I looked a little further and found a usage note saying that while in standard use "nonplussed" means "surprised and confused," a new use has developed in recent years, meaning "unperturbed." The new use may have arisen from an assumption that "non" is the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. The second "nonplussed" is not (yet) considered part of standard English.
Is this word is in the process of slipping over to its opposite meaning the way many people use "drone?" "Drone" seems well on its way from leaving its meaning of "non worker male bee" to something more like "drudge," possibly because of the boring sameness of the sound denoted by another version of "drone."
In the end, the writer decided to go with "unperturbed" just to make sure her narrative wasn't misread.
We had a discussion in my Advanced Novel Writing Class at NYU about the difficulty of capturing a character who is of a different gender from yourself. Writing about people unlike yourself– by race, ethnic group, age, and certainly gender or sexual preference– is always a big challenge, but also of great interest to a creative writer.
One class member spoke of an excellent contemporary novel written by a woman and narrated by a man. The class member said he admired the book but that it was only about 98% believable as a male narrator. That is, of course, pretty darn good. He said that it was hard to put his finger on exactly where the 2% resided, but thought it might be in certain words or phrases that weren't quite– manly enough? Something didn't quite ring true.
Another class member asserted that a male writer who gets it right with male and female point of view characters is George R.R. Martin, the fantasy epic writer whose vast A Song of Ice and Fire series is presently being dramatized on HBO as Game of Thrones. I am an admirer of Martin's work, and indeed I was impressed and inspired by his enormous cast of point of view characters, male and female. Martin does not, however, use first person narratives, but rather close third persons. He also works in relatively short chapters, always moving to a new character.
There are a couple of great advantages here, including that in third person, you don't have to attempt to capture every nuance of the character's thought and experience. I was inspired to use something like Martin's technique in the novel I'm just now finishing. I have six point of view characters, three male and three female. Like Martin's, these are close third persons, and the chapters vary in length but are short enough that I can focus on one moment in time, or only certain memories of each character.
That is to say, I may skip (if I choose) quintessentially male things like a boy's sexual awakenings or being kicked in the genitals or shaving your face– all kinds of activities that I might or might not be able to imagine or do research on. The focus in my novel, as I see it, is not on the entire consciousness and life experience of any one character, but on certain events and on the interplay of the six people and others. Whether my three men are believable men remains to be seen, of course.
I do have a reasonably successful experience writing first person male, and that is two children's novels in the voice of a boy named Marco, The Secret Super Powers of Marco and Marco's Monster. The reason I was comfortable with this is, I believe, first that Marco is prepubescent; second, that I relied heavily on writing and storytelling by children I had worked with in New York City public schools. Third, my own son was just about Marco's age. And finally, again, my interest was on story, on a certain voice I knew. Marco is not an angst-ridden teen-age outsider but a third grader who is telling his adventures to readers in a quasi-formal tone: "When I was about three years old," he begins, "I had a little red cape I wore every day. My mother says I was so cute, she used to keep a picture of me in the album in this cape with my arms stretched out like Superman...."
These notes are just musing about this issue of how to get deep into people unlike you. My advice is to experiment: Try writing a passage about a character very different from you in his or her own voice. You may not keep what you've written in its original form, but you are highly likely to learn something.
I've been revising a novel that's going to be published early in 2014 by Foreverland Press as an e-book (hard copy to follow). This book is really finished, and was given an excellent editing a while back by my then-agent. Still, this was an opportunity to go over it one more time, and I tried a technique I've advocated but never actually used myself. This revision technique is only for the end stages of writing a big project. The idea is not to get caught up in the momentum of your own story. Simply put, you go over the final chapter, then go over the penultimate chapter, then the one before that. I did Chapter 29, then Chapter 28, then Chapter 27, and so on all the way back to the beginning. When you do this, you tend to be annoyed by anything extraneous– you're less likely to skip over things. I'm a big fan of moving forward fast as you draft, but now I wanted to do the exact opposite: to slow down and find as much as possible of what was wordy or unnecessary. I didn't find a huge amount to cut and correct, but plenty to make me glad I'd done it. One interesting thing I noticed was that the end of the novel seemed richer and stronger than the beginning, which I had, in fact, polished a lot more. This suggests to me that my novel got better with the accumulation of what had gone before. It's a good layer of revision. For more layers of revision, see my article in The Writer.
Here's something especially for teachers-- a free writing prompt of the month: Prompts
Looking for Poetry Writing Exercises? Writenet at Teachers & Writers has some good ones originally planned for young people, but they would make great starters for anyone
For writing exercises for children, click here. Teens can use the ones on this page, or look at my page for teens.
Here's a link to a really interesting haiku exercise from Timothy Russell.
And then there is making fun of writing prompts:McSweeney's has a fairly funny take-off called "Thirteen Writing Prompts" by Dan Wienceck
Rita Marie Keller has a blog called Buried Treasures that is full of writing prompts and links to more writing prompts. " Essays and writing exercises to help you uncover the great writing ideas you already have."
Exercise # 301
Try writing a short short story in first person plural. Make it a story that some group is tellng. Here is an excellent example from the Bellevue Literary Review:"Sisters of Mercy."
Exercise # 302
Write a piece in which a meal is served, and there is a conflict, overt or hidden, about the food: is there not enough of the main course to go around? Is someone a vegetarian who doesn't want to ask if the soup stock has chicken? Does someone have a religious or cultural problem?
Exercise # 303
I just reread Madame Bovary. Try writing a piece set today in which a man or woman's values are corrupted by popular culture. This could be advertising or movies or video games or even peer pressure. Does it lead to disaster as it does in Flaubert's classic novel? Is there a different ending? Does it end up humorous?
Exercise # 304
There's a great Frank Bruni op-ed piece called "When Italians Meet Turkey" in today's New York Times about how his family celebrates Thanksgiving by eating and eating and eating some more. It's funny and touching.
Write something-- or put something into your longer work-- about eating too much (it doesn't have to be Thanksgiving).
Exercise # 305
I like short real-life biographies like the "people we lost" obituaries that appear at the end of the year and also the The New York Times Neediest Cases series that tell true short stories of people who fall behind financially or for various reasons have no safety net or family support. By receiving a relatively small monetary gift from one of various local charities (Children's Aid Society, Catholic Charities, Protestant Charities, UJA Federation, etc.) these people often get back on their feet. Then, of course, the reader is encouraged to donate.
It's the sheer ordinariness of these little true stories--not their shock value or amazing coincidences -- that moves me.
TRY THIS: Write over 5 days, one a day, @250 to 500 word true stories of real life loss, or adversity overcome, or just life lived. Do a different person each day: someone you know or read about or perhaps someone in your family.
Don't bother with research, but do aim to make these stories as objective as possible, with few overt calls to emotion. Focus on the narrative and the bright, quotidian surprises of real life.
Exercise # 306
Write something with siblings in it. It might be an ode to a sister or brother, possibly mock-heroic or otherwise humorous; a story about a boy who always wanted his parents to have another baby; a scene or story in which two siblings get locked in a serious competition; or anything else with siblings in it.
Exercise # 307
Describe a death. This could, obviously, be the beginning of a murder mystery (see notes on murder mysteries here) or it might be the death of a pet or a family member. Even something so familiar and strange and inevitable and terrible as death-- or perhaps especially death-- is an excellent way to start a piece of writing.
Exercise # 308
Write something that begins with snow: "It had been snowing for three days without cease..." "My cousin Tania had never seen snow before..." "If we hadn't had a snow day at school, I would never have..."
Exercise # 309
Write a scene from your fiction or an incident from your experience that has always interested you. Short is better for purposes of this exercise. Write it however it comes out-- in first person, or as an omniscient narrative.
Now write it again, switching point of view: if you did it omnisciently, write it in the first person from one person's point of view. Or, conversely, if you wrote it in first person, write it again in a close third person or with the grand distance of the all-seeing all-knowing omniscient.
How does the passage feel in its different modes?
(Look at this point of view chart if you aren't sure of definitions--or want to try soemthing different)
Exercise # 310
Write a poem or short prose piece in which you speak in the voice of some figure from legend or myth or story and give your own version. We recently saw the Angelina Jolie movie about the allegedly evil fairy from Sleeping Beautiy, which is, needless to say, a different story altogether from Maleficent's point of view!
Here's a really interesting poem by Ansel Elkins in the voice of the Biblical Eve:
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
Exercise # 311
A person is walking in a city. Have him or her (or you) observe in detail. Show, without saying explicitly, what city it is, and also what year, or at least approximately what year.
Exercise # 312
Describe a person getting dressed. If you're looking at this as a starter for a story or personal memoir, consider a memory--watching your mother get ready for a grown-up party or watching your father get dressed for work....
If you are working on a novel or a long story, try this: one of your main characters is choosing what to wear and putting it on for an important event.
In either case, concentrate on physical action and (if it is a first person or close third) on what the observer is learning or feeling about the other character.
Exercise # 313
Put an exotic animal in your writing. If you are writing a novel or memoir, add a creature who is not native to the setting: a tiger in a zoo or a bracelet in the form of an encircling python.
If you are looking for a new start, think of some exotic animal and using it as a jumping off point. "The wolverine always returned to its kill..."
Exercise # 314
Take a memory from your childhood, a time you interacted with an adult in your life: parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle. Write the memory as you remember it. Imagine it again, from the adult's point of view.
Write it a third time, interspersing the two versions.
Exercise # 315
Imagine or remember a face. This might be someone from childhood or a face you saw on the train last week.
Describe just the face in more detail than you usually do.
Write some back story for this person.
Who are the two most important people in this one's life? Briefly sketch a sentence about her or his relationship with each of them.
What is the conflict between the person and each ot them?
Where might this lead you in a story?
Click here if you want to know who the face is...
Exercise # 316
Do some research on a particular year that has always interested you (your birth year? The year the Berlin Wall came down?). Alternatively, choose a random year that has absolutely no resonance for you. Get a chronology and a few facts off the Internet, then go to the library and try to find some old newspapers and magazines that will have ads for cars and clothes.
Write a piece that begins with something in the news (a heat wave? war? sports? an actor dies?) and then go wherever it takes you.
Exercise # 317
Write a short dialogue for two characters (or start with one you've already drafted).
Write it once as a phone conversation
Once as a written exchange (e-mail? texts?
Once face to face indoors with the setting described.
Once face to face outdoors with the setting described
Which works best in this case? What can you take from one and use in the one you like best?
Take your notebook or your laptop or your tablet to some very familiar place: your bed, the nearby park bench, your mother's kitchen--anywhere you go often. Write a directed free writing (whatever comes to your mind, but start with the direction above) in which describe your familiar place as if you were seeing it for the first time.
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