These exercises are completely free and frequently changed.
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 go to the main page of my website or 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 form below.
Three Good Places to Learn About Grammar: The Grammarist;
Grammar Girl;The Center for Writing Studies
The newsletter is also online at Books for Readers .
Try one a day and see what you end up with! Some of these have a game-like quality, but don't be put off: playfulness is a good thing.
More writing exercises below and in archives. How about a few notes on grammar and word usage?
More Writing Exercises:
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
Exercises 301 - 330
"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 # 331
In a poem, William Carlos Williams once listed some ordinary things, then wrote:
Astonish me beyond words
Write a scene in your novel, or start a poem or a story with something astonishing beyond words. Perhaps it is something your character observes, or merely the naming of an amazing natural phenomenon.
(See the whole poem at Pastoral by William Carlos Williams)
Exercise # 332
Think of two people you have seen recently at the supermarket or in the park or on the street. Or, if you are working o a story or novel, take two of your characters, just not the main characters.
Imagine these people engaged in a conversation on some quotidian subject: the weather, the baseball scores, whatever. Write down only the words they say. Do it rapidly.
Then go back and add everything else: a setting, gestures, how they said things, tones, thoughts, descriptions of their clothes, etc.
Finally, make it longer. Where does it go?
Here are several list prompts that, according to developer Rose Blessing, are especially useful in stimulating poetry.
Exercise # 333
8-MINUTE LIST PROMPTS:
--Things you've copied
--Items that beep
--Things at a train station
--Things to leave alone
--Reasons to buy flowers
--Things out of reach
--Ways to enjoy the outdoors
Selected prompts used in 2015 and 2016 at The Write Group's Saturday morning Free Write sessions at Montclair Public Library in Montclair, New Jersey.
Shared by Rose Blessing, Write Group member
Exercise # 334
More prompts from the from The Write Group's Saturday morning Free Write sessions at Montclair Public Library in Montclair, New Jersey. There were shared by Rose Blessing. To learn more about The Write Group, visit their Facebook page or website.
15-MINUTE PROSE PROMPTS
--Two steps forward, one step back
--Focus was everything.
--The fifth child startled us.
--Don't underestimate me.
--My regular wardrobe is . . .
--He had begun living in his imagination.
--I am an adult.
--It tasted like blue.
--I'm done with the doctor.
--Things can be replaced. People can't.
-- In this moment, on this planet, in this galaxy
--They hadn't a clue.
--BRB (be right back)
--Focus is everything.
--The dog's true personality revealed itself in the dog park.
--I still care, despite it all.
--Winter weather advisory
--That in-between place
--Now that he's dead...
--Loose and light
--A little respect, please
--Thus much I know
--The monsters screamed.
--I long to be absolutist.
--Copy the boss.
--Facing the mob
--I'm in a dream.
--You're the star.
--It will happen shortly.
--Notes of peach
--I know the place well.
Exercise # 335
What do you fear? Think of a few things, realistic or unlikely-- Developing a medical condition a close relative has or had? Mosquitoes? Black holes in space?
First write briefly about the thing that frightens you-- when it frightens you, how it frightens you, and where you think the fear comes from.
Second, try a reversal: write an ode to the thing you fear: "To a Black Hole in Space," etc.
Finally, try a short story that begins with a character with a very different fear from yours: "Marshan had always been deathly afraid of vultures, even seen from a great distance floating on columns of air..."
Exercise # 336
It's really really hot this week. Imagine yourself or some random person you have seen in a public place or a character in something you've written getting hotter and hotter.
What does it feel like? What is the evidence of heat? Sweat is obvious, feet swelling against sandals is a little less obvious. What else?
What are the circumstances? A stopped subway car and the AC goes off? A sports event out-of-doors?
You can do this as simple description, or imagine it driving the person to take action: something creative to cool off? Something violent out of misery?
Exercise # 337
I was just reminded by a grown woman of a writing exercise I once gave her class when she was in fifth grade. It is exactly the kind of assignment I always hated most--the sort of fake "Let's get wild and imagine something crazy!"
My assignment was, "Imagine you are a roll of Tums."
Try this challenge: take that roll of Tums and put it into a bit of memoir writing or a poem or a story. Or try using it to start something.
Help redeem this writing teacher!
Exercise # 338
Write something with a wolf in it. Maybe it is actually about a wolf, or maybe a wolf appears in a dream or when characters visit a zoo. This can be especially useful as a jumpstart on a blocked project. Have your main character see, or imagine, or hear, or remember a wolf or something about a wolf.
Exercise # 339
It's National Novel Writing Month--a free project that gives people support in writing all through November, trying to draft, or at least get a lot of words written on, a novel. Learn about it here.
Try it out, if it appeals to you.
Or, try this: Write the opening lines of three novels you always wanted to write.
Read over them, and pick one.
Exercise # 340
Write either a fictional beginning or a piece of memoir about a historical or current event of deep darkness, unease, and danger.
Writing about something from the past may help give perspective on current fears and dangers. Imagine you or a character are in Europe in 1939. Write something set in times when many Americans were enslaved.
Exercise # 341
Write about something stolen--a theft. This can be metaphorical ("I remember the moment when my heart was stolen...") or something small (a child takes an unauthorized cookie) or a major crime. Use it to start a piece or or slip the theft into an ongoing project.
Exercise # 342
Holidays have so much importance in our cultural and personal lives that they often include disappointment and bad feelings.
Write about a contrast: a holiday when nothing is going right--but somehow, the feeling comes through. Or, vice versa, a holiday with high expectations and a crash. Loneliness in the midst of a crowd of family? Not getting the gift we wanted--but getting something much, much better?
Exercise # 343
Here is the name of a new anthology of stories that I really like (I have a story in it). Use it as a prompt for a piece of writing: Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods. Try it as the title of a poem, or turn it into an opening sentence ("There were eyes glowing at the edge of the woods...") Or don't use the phrase at all, just contemplate it and see where it takes you.
Exercise # 344
Take a piece of writing you have laid aside but find youself still interested in, and try this simple series of exericises:
1.Write what happened “One month later….”
2.Write what happened “One year later….”
3.Write what happened “Ten years later….
Exercise # 345
Think of, and describe, a real mirror you have seen or owned or lived with. After describing it, write what it has reflected. Here is a poem-version of this exercise by Gail Mazur.
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