If you’ve hung around Writers Helping Writers for very long, today’s guest author doesn’t need an introduction. Gabriela Pereira is a former Resident Writing Coach who keeps coming back to share helpful information. Today, she’s talking about writing prompts and how they can accelerate your writing.
Some writers love doing exercises and prompts. Others don’t like the pressure of needing to “write on demand.” I happen to love writing exercises and firmly believe that when you weave a healthy dose into your regular writing workout, your mastery of the craft can grow by leaps and bounds. Whether you are a fan of writing exercises (like me!) or you’d rather tap dance on an alligator’s nose, here are a few good reasons—four, in fact—for why you might want to give writing prompts a try.
1) Lower stakes mean higher output and more confidence.
When you work on a project you care about—something meaningful, like a novel or other book-in-progress—the stakes are automatically going to be fairly high. No matter how hard you may try to convince yourself that this is only a messy first draft, there’s that little voice in the back of your mind that insists this project is important.
All this mental baggage can put a damper on your output. Of course you want your writing to be of a quality worthy of this project, but the pressure can squash your momentum. A writing exercise, on the other hand, has far lower stakes and you are less likely to beat yourself up if the result is less-than perfect. Instead, the exercise or prompt can help you get your momentum going before you try to tackle a bigger, more hefty project.
These lower stakes can also give you a major confidence boost. When you do a writing exercise, naturally you won’t expect the writing to be perfect. This means that when you reread what you wrote later on, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover a handful of gems buried in the garble. Your writhing may not be quite as hopeless as you thought.
Writing prompts can help you learn to set those first-draft expectations extra-low. An added benefit to these lower stakes is that when your writing inevitably exceeds your rock-bottom expectations, it will give your confidence a boost.
2) The less attachment you have to the result, the better the chances of improving your skills.
I usually think of prompts and exercises as “throw-away” writing. They are something I do to warm up; I’m not writing “for real.” This automatically makes me feel less attached to whatever I am writing, and whatever I produce is not going to be as dear to my heart as all those “darlings” I must ruthlessly murder in my manuscript.
The more darling something is to you, the harder it will be to kill. And unfortunately, in most projects there will be at least one thing you absolutely love but must remove. Just because your book will be better for it doesn’t make “killing those darlings” any easier.
This is where writing exercises come in. They help desensitize you to the brutality of revision. After all, it’s far less painful to slash a red pen across a page you produced from a ten-minute exercise than it is to cut that perfect turn of phrase you agonized over for three hours. When you revise something with lower stakes, you become more open to making broad, sweeping changes and you develop a thicker skin for when revisions reallymatter.
3) You’re more willing to take creative risks.
Here’s a secret no one tells you: creativity has nothing to do with being a “creative person,” it’s all about practice. The muse may be a fickle beast, but she can be trained. (Mine is great at playing dead.) And if all else fails, do what a fellow author once told me—chain the muse to your desk.
A huge part of creativity is training your brain to think on the fly. The more you train your brain to put ideas together and follow where they lead, the better you will get at this type of thinking. Writing exercises are a great way to practice this skill, and since the stakes are so low, you are less likely to stifle your creativity along the way.
Prompts and exercises aren’t just about getting your creativity going; sometimes they can help you hold the reins. While many writers might use exercises to rev up their creativity, others (like me) will find that prompts are a great way to get the crazies out of your system. You can use writing exercises to try things that may seem completely out of place in your current project, and you don’t risk derailing your book in the process.
Prompts allow you to try ideas on for size or to let your characters do something that might seem wildly out-of-character. The exercise serves as a container, a safe space where you can experiment without worrying that you might break something in your book. Even if you don’t use everything you write, you may be able to extract some nugget of genius from the exercise and infuse that into your project.
4) You can safely hone your craft.
Up until now, we’ve focused on how exercises can help boost your creativity, but they can also play an important role in helping you hone your craft. If you are struggling with a particular writing technique, a great way to master that skill is to do a series of writing exercises focusing on that one problem.
For example, if your dialogue feels stilted or unnatural, choose a few different dialogue prompts and exercise that mental muscle until it begins to feel more limber. I often use characters and situations from my work-in-progress when I do writing exercises. The prompt serves as a low-pressure testing ground for practicing that technique, but if the result is good, I can always use certain snippets in my project.
I call this the Petri Dish Technique. This approach allows you to test and improve upon certain elements of your writing without destroying your book. Just like scientists use small samples in a Petri dish to test their hypotheses, so too can you refine elements of your craft in the contained space of a writing exercise. This way, you can test different possible solutions without killing the entire “organism” that is your book.
Many writers love to talk about their ideas for a scene or a story, but until those words are on the page in some form, it doesn’t really exist. You can’t edit an idea that’s in your brain; there has to be some raw material for you to work with, and for a writer, that means words on the page. Writing exercises help you get out of your own way so you can think on paper and produce that essential raw material.
Want to try your hand at some writing exercises in the New Year? The DIY MFA book club kicks off on Monday, January 21. Part read-along, part writing prompt challenge, you’ll receive thought questions and mini-assignments right in your inbox. Plus, you’ll be able to connect with fellow participants on social media. If you have a blog or want to build your platform while improving your craft, this challenge is a great way to do that.
Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a TEDx speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.