Unless they are preternaturally gifted, most aspiring authors’ prose is less than stellar when they begin setting their stories down. This can be disheartening, and some writers throw in the towel after their first few attempts show no improvement. For those who persist, it can take time to identify which particular skills they need to develop and/or strengthen in order to create a salable story.
Some will say the solution to these difficulties is to simply keep writing, and they would not be incorrect. But writing aimlessly, without taking stock of what one needs to improve upon is not the best way to progress as a storyteller. It is better to recognize the strengths one has and build on them, while also admitting one’s weaknesses in order to spend the time necessary to turn those into assets. Just as athletes have training regimens, writers have a variety of exercises they can use to sharpen their skills and develop their ability to produce good prose.
There are many, many types of drills which writers can use to improve their abilities. Due to time and space constraints, only ten will be featured in this article. If none of them suit your requirements, future writers, you will not have far to go to find others that better fit your needs. One size does not fit all, so do not be afraid to look for alternative options, should those below be of no use.
These exercises are meant to be completed in five minutes, though you are not trying to beat the clock per se. The timer is only meant to help you improve your writing skills so that you can write good prose quickly and with less difficulty. None of this will make you a bestselling writer overnight but it will help you make your prose flow more smoothly, something editors will appreciate. And like all exercises, repetition is key. If you can, do one of these workouts once a day every week. If that is not possible, then do one per week. Make them fit your schedule – not the other way around. Whatever works for you is usually the best way to go.
Given enough time, you should see a marked improvement in your writing skill. This does not mean you will be able to sell the next story you create after a week or even a month following your regimen, but every time you complete one of these workouts, you will become a better writer. And all of that hard work will pay off in the long run.
Our first exercise is Dialogue. As the name suggests, this training is meant to help a beginner practice writing conversations between or among characters. The discussions do not have to make sense to anyone but you, nor do they have to be pieces in a novel or short story that you hope to complete – though it is all right to use those ideas if you wish. The main point is to write dialogue in proper conversation format (see this post here for an idea of what that looks like). If creating believable conversations is difficult for you, then this little project should help you improve your command of dialogue.
As mentioned above, this is an exercise meant to be accomplished in five minutes. Once you feel you have excelled sufficiently at writing comprehensible dialogue in five minutes, you can increase the time limit to eight, ten, or even fifteen. Since these assignments are supposed to be short, keeping the time limit brief is also for the best.
There is no target number of pages or paragraphs that you have to reach before the timer goes. As with any work out, how you measure progress is entirely up to you. If you are satisfied that you have mastered the five minute requirement only when you have one or more pages of dialogue written, then feel free to move up to the eight or ten minute mark. You can write these snippets of conversation by hand or on digital “paper,” whichever you prefer.
Next are the descriptive practice sessions, as descriptive writing can be very difficult for beginning authors to master. Many will think this refers to choreographing sword fights and ship battles, and while that is true, there are other items an author will have to describe. He will need to tell the audience what type of clothes his protagonists are wearing, what his characters look like, and so on. Readers will also need to have the settings for various scenes laid out recognizably. And then there are the everyday items which everyone uses for mundane and grand activities that have to be adequately portrayed….
From this list it is easy to see that there are many different images a prospective author will need to practice writing up. The First Descriptive Exercise focuses a future author’s attention on interior setting. In this case, the writer has to picture a room and then write up a description of it. This can be a real room or an imagined one. For this practice piece, you want to write the description in such a way that your future readers will know where everything is because your description clearly indicates the position of everything important in the space.
What do I mean, precisely, by important? I mean that your readers should be able to know the layout of the room and what the decor says about the character who inhabits it. Let’s take a bedroom as an example; say the hero has dropped into the heroine’s room to have a chat where no one (presumably) will overhear them. Your job as the writer is to tell the reader where the bed, the armoire, the chair(s), the reading lamp, and the attached bathroom (if there is one) are located. You will also have to mention the relevant knick-knacks and where they are situated.
This way, when the hero turns to leave because an alarm has been raised outside, no one will be particularly surprised when he barks his shin on the bed post. Nor would they be confused when he notices a picture or curio that relates to his history with the heroine. A good writer can take readers on a tour of a bedroom or a ship’s bridge in a handful of paragraphs. That is the bar every beginner aspires to pass, but getting there can be quite difficult, which is why this exercise is essential practice for struggling writers.
Of course, some rooms will need far less description than the bedroom mentioned above. Thanks to Star Trek, The Last Ship, and several other sci-fi/military series, you will not have to get too specific when you are describing the bridge of a vessel. Since a ship’s con is rather utilitarian, unless a writer wishes to embellish it, not much description will be necessary. As long as they have an idea of where the crew stations are in relation to the captain’s (normal) place on the bridge, the readers ought to be able to picture it fairly easily.
A Second Descriptive Exercise would be to painting a picture of an item with your words. In the case of this assignment, said article should be something you can get your hands on for about five minutes. Whether it is a fruit, a kitchen knife, a plate, a scrunchie, or a mug, pick it up and take it to your writing station. Then describe this item within the established time frame.
You can tell your imaginary reader the length and weight of the item you are depicting, or you can keep the description simple. If you want, you can do these things simultaneously, or one after the other. Once you feel you can do both ably for five minutes, move the timer up to eight or ten minutes if you think you still need practice. All things considered, this type of description should not to take too long to master.
The Third Descriptive Exercise is for action. This can be a simple action, such as cooking, sweeping, or some similar domestic activity. It does not have to be oriented toward conflict, armed or unarmed. However, if you wish, you can practice writing descriptions of various combat maneuvers – especially if you have any training in hand-to-hand fighting or military tactics. It is one thing to absorb such information and thereby be able to perform these actions by rote or instinct. It is another thing entirely to convey this knowledge to readers who may not have one’s particular understanding and experience.
For instance, learning tactics through training and experience may give an aspiring writer a very technical comprehension of what battle entails. Translating these concepts into an entertaining format will take a bit more work, as textbook descriptions will go over the audience’s heads or bore them. Neither outcome is what you want, future writers. You want to have readers on the edge of their seats, following each move with bated breath. If you have any combat experience or training, writing descriptions of these actions from the point-of-view of a character (or your own POV, since this is an exercise and will not be published), would be a very good practice to take up.
A Fourth Descriptive Assignment is to describe an outdoor or exterior setting. Whether it is a lake, a mountain, or even another planet is irrelevant. You can choose a place you know or one you have only seen in photographs. You can even use a place in a video game or film as your subject. The same can be done with various buildings or domiciles, some of which have ornate facades. As long as you can describe an accurate picture of this exterior setting, you will have accomplished the goal of this exercise.
The Fifth Descriptive Practice is to write up an account of someone’s outer appearance. This would include the person’s clothes, face, eyes, height, weight (if that is relevant), and any other defining characteristics. While you can use a real person for this workout, there is no reason you cannot make up a character specifically for the drill. It would certainly save you trouble if someone, somehow, found your exercise notes and started poking through them.
If you want to expand this assignment a bit, before or after you move to a new time mark, you can also use this exercise to practice describing a character’s personality. This may require the character to be moving, performing an action, or even holding a conversation with either a fellow protagonist or an antagonist. You can take them on a trip down memory lane via flashback or dialogue during this workout. Writing a profile that includes both the character’s life history and physical description would also be a viable way to accomplish this exercise.
On the subject of profiles, another drill is one we might call The Plot Summary. This could look like a back cover blurb for a novel, or it could be an article length piece. For this assignment, it might be better to write up a plot summary of a story you are familiar with, not one of your own invention. That is covered by the next practice assignment: Working Up a Plot.
Similar to the above exercise, Working Up a Plot could be a list of events in a story. This could be done in the form of an outline or just a “stream-of-consciousness” ramble down the page. In this case, you can use your own fiction or an existing tale to fulfill the requirements of the exercise. The goal is to figure out what happens in your chosen tale and write it down concisely within the set time frame. This will help you brainstorm plots and/or come up with them pretty much on the spot in the future. Considering the number of deadlines you will have to face as an author, this is a workout that will certainly come in handy.
For the Corner Writing exercise, you have to write yourself into a proverbial corner and then write yourself out. Set up a situation where the good guys are cornered by the villains or vice versa. Then show how they escape and live to fight another day. This can be tough, especially since you have to write yourself out of the corner logically. Flying unicorns cannot come to rescue your James Bond-type hero, nor can dragons erupt from the ground, forcing the heroes to fight them instead of the villains. Convenient helicopters or rope ladders are also a no-no.
This was a writing exercise I struggled to complete. In fact, I am not sure I actually did complete it. So far that hasn’t hurt me as an author, which means you should not feel bad if you find this assignment a challenge. If you never actually do it in five minutes or complete it at all, that is not the end of the world. There are plenty of other ways to write yourself into and out of a corner, and you will have no trouble finding them.
Last but not least, we come to the Interchange Exercise. The challenge here is to come up with as many similes and metaphors as you can, then interchange them. Not only will this cut down on the “purple prose” in your work, it will aid you in improving your descriptive powers. Most of all, it will help you think of different terms to describe various items, places, and people in memorable ways.
Just in case you are wondering, a simile is “a phrase that uses the words like or as to describe someone or something by comparing it with someone or something else that is similar.” (Thanks go to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for the definition.) A metaphor does practically the same thing, but without using like or as, both words that get repetitive and slow the reader down if they are used too often. Metaphors also allow for deeper comparisons – some of which are paradoxical – to describe and/or reveal certain truths about life. They tend to be more poetic than similes as well.
I hope these exercises prove to be just what you are looking for, future writers. Should your particular needs require a different set of practices, please make the effort to hunt those up and set up a regimen for their use. It will save you time and trouble as you progress toward your publishing and/or writing goals.
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in the now defunct Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna* and Uranus*. Order them today!
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through it, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.
If you are searching for more ways to improve your craft, consider buying a copy of Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop by Kate Wilhelm. This memoir/writing guide has some exercises meant to improve an author’s skill included in it, making it a valuable resource for aspiring authors. Order it today!