Summer is a glorious time, isn’t it? Drinks on the deck, barbecues, hiking, travel, maybe a day (or three!) at the lake…it’s like a reward for working our butts off all year around. But, with more things competing for our time during these summer months, it can be tempting to put writing off.
This is why I love today’s post, and this exercise: it is simple to do, doesn’t take a lot of time, and will help keep your pen sharp. Please welcome Sarah Moore to the blog!
I’m always wary of promises to shatter procrastination’s evil hold, lose that pesky weight or fix your firebombed marriage in “just 10 minutes a day!” Because, come on: 10 minutes? One-sixth of an hour?
Yet here I am with a too-good-to-believe promise of my own: You really and truly can improve your writing with one short, simple exercise:
Rewrite the work of famous authors.
An Exercise in Greatness
This technique is one I’ve been using for years. Originally, in fact, I didn’t even know I was doing it. In my early 20s, when I dreamed of being the next JK Rowling, I had no idea that my manuscripts were just bad versions of Harry Potter – agents had to tell me. Ouch. Slowly, though, it dawned on me: hey, this is a fantastic exercise.
Why? Because published authors, especially the ones you love dearly, are good. They understand how the game is played. For instance, indicating the passage of time is one of the most nuanced – and difficult to nail – skills a writer can possess. But the great writers? Well, they’re awesome at it, obviously. Worldbuilding? They’re on it. Speaking to character’s deep-seated financial fears? Yep, they know how.
A lot of writing is mental muscle memory, learning the tricks of the trade and employing them intuitively. Yes, you should do this on your own as well. But by cadging the skills of the published, you can cement those skills. Here’s how to do it.
- Choose an Author You Love
First select the author you’re going to emulate. Obviously it’s helpful if this author writes in your genre, but you don’t always need to adhere strictly. I’m a speculative YA girl myself, but that doesn’t make Jane Austen’s incredible depth of character development any less useful.
- Set the Scene for Writing Well
This step is not unique to this exercise. If you want to succeed at a writing habit, you need to make a plan … not pants the job. That means picking a time and place to write, whether it’s the break room on lunch, your desk first thing in the morning, or late-night bed while your spouse snoozes beside you. Eliminate distractions with a pre-pee, a cup of tea, a Chapstick and anything else that you might “have to” get up for. Don’t forget to grab your book of choice.
- Select a Short Passage
Pick a chapter, a paragraph, dialogue, even a poem. Ideally you select a piece that has a strong theme, visible through multiple elements of the story: settings, description, internal and external dialogue, and events. This will help order your writing. Read through your selection a few times, noting what happens, how it happens, novel words and metaphors, and most important, what you really love about it – what makes it good writing?
- Put It Away
This exercise works best when you let the reading percolate in your brain, but don’t look right at it, which runs the chance of straight copying rather than inspiration. So stash it out of sight, and resist the urge to pull it out again.
- Rewrite However Much You Can in 10 Minutes
Now rewrite the selection as much as you can in the allotted time span. Keep it short; you don’t want to give up too much of your own original writing time. And don’t feel pressure to rewrite in the same form. Turn a poem into prose? WHY SURE! Don’t change it so much that you lose the original mettle of the piece, but feel free to make it your own in whatever way you see fit.
- Keep It to Yourself!
Remember, this exercise is definitely toeing the plagiarism line. Okay, no, it straight-up crosses it. Which is totally fine in the privacy of your own garret, but notsomuch in your submissions. Remember The Words? The main concept was just that … the “author” found a manuscript on a train, retyped the original work and passed it off as his own. Terrible regret ensued. Rewriting is almost as bad, so don’t do that. Keep the results to yourself for later reference, though.
Follow these steps, though, and you’re guaranteed a short daily habit that exposes you to great works and almost effortlessly ingrains in you the techniques of great writing. If you have any suggestions for how to improve this exercise or any variations you use in your practice, please feel free to share them with us in the comments below.
Have you ever tried this technique? Let us know in the comments!
Sarah Moore has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has worked as a professional writer for the last seven years. She is the owner and founder of at New Leaf Writing, working as a fiction writer by night and coaching others to help them reach their own writing goals through private calls and a Facebook Group. You can also find her posting cool stuff on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.