Shaping into Shape

If you woke up one day and discovered that you could write well, then I’d say you woke up and discovered how good of a liar you were. Or you’re legitimately delusional, currently seeking treatment. I’ll wish you the best.

One-punch KOs, levitation, invisibility, showering, being a boss: these things don’t come naturally. They take practice. They don’t just happen. Neither does writing. You’re not good at it, even if you woke up thinking you were. You don’t get good at it by going back to bed and waking up again thinking you’re good at it.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I don’t mean to brag, but—

(Yes, you do. But do go on.)

since I’ve spent the last few years sculpting my body, I know the value of exercise and routine when it comes to achieving a goal.

(This blog isn’t called “Bodybuilding All Wrong,” but I’ll keep the idea for reference.)

I’d really like to improve my writing. What kind of “exercises” can you recommend to practice getting in “writing shape?”

—Blane Renner, Gainesville, Fla.

Change your name to “Blade Runner.” Start with that.

I’m with you on sculpting a perfect body, having done so myself. Once I reached that rarefied pinnacle of peak fitness, toning my once pathetic body into a paragon of godlike perfection, I focused on writing instead. My body has reached the limit of flawlessness, but the mind has no such limit.

As far as writing exercises go, they’re similar to how you’d exercise in the real world outside of the word processor and/or internet. You don’t throw a 98-pound weakling right to the bench press, nor do you subject a beast (like me) to concentration curls using a 100-pound dumbbell. Maybe a 10-pound dumbbell, if we’re talking about mortals here.

Unfortunately, writing isn’t a muscle. Raw exercise won’t cut it. It’s a skill that takes refinement and practice.

Exercises for wimps:

(If you haven’t written a [good] novel or a good anything, then start here, wimp.)

1) Character sketches.

Invent a person, draft a rough idea of who he/she/it is with quick strokes of introspection. Create them by the masses, kill off those who don’t inspire you. Unless they’re a transcendent creation, they deserve to die anyway.

2) Dialogue.

Generate a happening through dialogue. Keep that narrator in the box for now, practice the creation of substance from the eavesdropper’s perspective. There’s a reason hearsay’s banned from a court of law: it’s that good.

3) Creation from drafts.

Do most stories plop onto the paper in their fullest form? No. Jot some fragments down, sprinkle in a pinch of coherence. See if you can construct a complete work from the sporadic emanations of your creative faculties. The imagination doesn’t do the legwork in fleshing out an unassembled spate of dissimilar ideas. That’s where writing comes in.

Exercises for mortals:

1) Freewriting

An intentionally torturous ordeal, meant to shape the mind before the craft. Simple in theory, difficult in execution. Write (by hand) for twenty minutes straight. Without stopping. Not even to pee. You can soil your shorts if you have to. Freewriting builds the ability to keep a train of thought going long enough to pen down what you’re thinking. I dare you to try it offhand. Without thinking, you’ll reflexively stop, pause, determine what to write, then continue writing. That is why you fail. Your mind should be quicker than the pen. If it isn’t, you either write too fast or think too slow.

2) Constructing a recollection.

This doesn’t call for an eidetic memory, but it helps. Think of this as a retrospective diary, only less sissy. Using recreational acid, experimental prescription drugs for treating Alzheimer’s, or wild mushrooms in a forbidden forest, probe the recesses of your memory. If those memories aren’t yours, well, that’s fresh material to work with. Keep at it. You may need to meditate for two hours, possibly up to forty-two. Write what you remember, but do so with the intent of your reader experiencing the memory as you do. Writing from observation takes no skill. Your memory is the closest bridge you have between the real and the mind-constructed. Unless you’re copping out and only going to write what you’ve experienced firsthand, then this skill must be developed.

3) Forced constraint.

You’d find it difficult if you had to work without using both arms, or if you didn’t work with both parts of your brain. If you opt for imposing a constraint on your writing, you’ll find how much you’ll labor in this art, in contrast to how straightforward it looks if you don’t work with limits. Pick which suits your fancy: no word surpassing any amount of consonants, paragraphing within a word limit, taking out words that modify, or anything you think of that unnaturally stilts your writing.*

*Like not using the letter E. 

Exercises for beasts (like me):

1) Dictionary dash

This may be my least favorite exercise, but I can’t think of anything that will whip you into shape faster and build your pathetic vocabulary. It’s like mixing creatine and recombinant bovine growth hormone into your muscle milk before a rigorous workout. Effective. Check out your local library’s copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (Twentyleventh Edition, revision 3-and-a-half.5), then begin a narrative while using one of the OED’s entries per sentence. It may take close to a dozen passes to yield a decent work. After you’ve gotten comfortable with the dictionary dash, begin using entries out of order. Going through the OED from A to Z: far too easy for a beast (like me).

2) Practice novels

Sketches, scenes, mere parts of the whole are the province of wimps and mortals. Whipping out entire novels by the novelful will test your ability to build an idea and bring it to fruition. The NaNoWriMo ruse will only gauge this ability once a year, and only through the flighty, exuberant whims of wannabe weevils. And taking a month to churn out a novel? Unacceptable. That’s a luxury you’ll refuse to afford. Should only take a week at most. Enough of these practice runs and you’ll be nearing the apex of optimal writing shape.

3) Ultramarathon freewriting

Freewriting will soon fail to test your strength once you’ve reached the beast echelon. Ultramarathon freewriting will be your solution. While twenty minutes would be an admirable goal for the mortal, we aim for sheer endurance at this level. Typing’s allowable, only because you’ll be shooting for pain. Don’t be dismayed if you average in the two-to-three hour range, as you’ve handily eclipsed the standard milestones. Breaking the five-hour mark takes incredible discipline, but by then you’d have developed a thought train more continuous than an entire high school system. It takes tremendous effort to break each new barrier in running a mile (three minutes, two minutes, one minute, half-minute), so will it be in shattering the six-, ten-, twenty-, and forty-hour marks. Press on.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (, followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and incorporated into the “P90x for Poets” regimen.


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