They say “practice makes us perfect” and nothing could be truer than practicing for aspiring authors, columnists, bloggers, and general writers. Honestly, putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard as many authors are now more likely to do, is one of the only ways you will ever get published. Whether putting together a portfolio to convince magazine editors to take a chance on your pitch, finishing that 569th page in your novel, or simply compiling snippets for your own purposes writing is something that gets better the more you work at it.
One of the best ways I have found to practice writing is to do what I call “Quick Writes.” I first started doing this in one of my writing classes, and they are perfect for your writers group, your students, or yourself. Quick Writes can be done anywhere, on the bus on the way to school or work, on your lunch break, in bed, etc. The point with them is to set up at least a few minutes a day to write. Your pieces do not need to be continuous; they do not need to be written all at once, in large paragraphs, or even on the same subject. Mine have come to look something like journal entries, sometimes they are long and fluid, sometimes they are poems, sometimes they are only a few words while other times they are three or four pages. You can make lists, or write poetry. The truth is Quick Writes are for you and are open to whatever you feel like practicing.
If you find yourself getting stuck, general themes to practice in your quick writes are beginnings, dialogues, character description, setting, and the “hard” scene, that scene you want to skip over like the mother dying, or the moment Jo and Jim decide to get a divorce. You may also try one of my “5 Inspiring Ideas for Fiction” (Workshop 1), they make great quick writes.
In working on your writing you may find you have difficulties with a certain aspect of your writing, like dialogue, or plotlines. This will allow you to do further research on these aspects, there are many books out there that offer pointers and practice workshops, some are general “better your writing skills” books and some are entirely on dialogue, plot, characters, etc. They hold awesome Quick Writes, though they are called everything from “writing exercises” to “practice writes” to “scribbles” to “workshops.”
In the book Elements of the Writing Craft, by Robert Olmstead he offers several quick write ideas I particularly loved. One example (summarized in my words) is What’s in a name? Write a beginning to a short story that provides the name of your main character and what they “are not.” For example: My name is Joe, and I am not a smart man. I am called Santa but I don’t bring toys on Christmas. During my exercise mine was: My name is Candy, but I am not a prostitute. Mr. Olmstead has many other good quick write examples, including burying the adjective, and dialogue sounds, so I encourage you to check out the book!
In my first workshop 5 Inspiring Ideas for Fiction was intended to get your pen on paper, these Quick Writes, though similar, are more about polishing your piece, if you know you’re setting is weak spend a few of your quick writes working on other scenes, perhaps it will allow you to come up with better adjectives, and identify more vividly the main scene you need. Try focusing on your setting for a week of Quick Writes, go to various places and describe the differences in the trees you see, write about the weather, write about the people living or working there.
Remember you don’t always need to do a page of writing for practice. Try instead to structure your Quick Writes as a list of short sentences about one subject, for example if I need to describe Jaynie, I could simply write out a series of sentences with the intention of saying the same thing:
Jaynie was a lanky woman, with hair as long and straight as her limbs. In fact, her only curve was a funky bend in her nose.
Jaynie’s hair hung in limp strands around her narrow shoulders, down over her school-boy chest, and into her face, nearly hiding it. Her slender frame seemed all the smaller behind her hawk nose.
Jaynie looked like cupid’s arrow, her large bent nose the tip and her arms, legs, and smooth hair the shaft.
Some will be stronger than others, but the main description will stay the same, and it may show you adjectives you wouldn’t have seen without the exercise, for example lanky, or hawk nose. Alternatively try simply listing adjectives that describe Jaynie, lanky, tall, slim, school-boy, hawk-nose. While it’s possible to just open a thesaurus be careful! Often words from will inspire hidden feelings behind adjectives, does the term lanky make you think of someone wobbly on their too thin limbs? Does the phrase hawk-nose imply to you that she’s mean or aggressive? A truly good writer can use one adjective to mean multiple things, and describing a physical attribute can very easily give information into that characters personality as well.
Here’s another great exercise, this one in dialogue. Try taking a simple phrase, like “sometimes, you annoy me,” or “Once in a while I’d like to win,” then using words to describe the speaker’s voice use the same dialogue in at least three different sentences. The dialogue phrase I chose was “Please, please, I love you.” Here’s how mine looked:
Heather’s orgasmic voice was raw with need, “Please! Please! I love you!”
Amidst rasping coughs, Peter choked, “please, please…I love you.”
Michelle’s sniveling, wet voice murmured, “please…please! I love you.”
Her voice cracked like a whip against my skin as she spat, “please, I love you.”
“Please!” His fiery voice erupted in my face. Catching his temper he continued, his voice filled only with the smolders of the fire it had been. “Please. I love you.”
In each segment try to show a different scene, or if you are trying to polish a scene within your own piece try working a line of dialogue from different angles to choose the right one.
The idea behind quick writes is not perfect grammar, super speed, or “a vomit of words” that don’t particularly flow together or make sense. Each exercise I have participated in has had a time limit or a length limit, and each has a very specific goal. When coming up with your own writing exercises identify your goal first, then decide whether you need to tighten up that section, or expound on it. If you need to tighten it up, try lists of adjectives looking for ones with the proper tones you are seeking, if you need to expound on the scene and provide further detail into it try simply writing an additional paragraph or page. Though perfection is a hard level to reach, and in truth most published authors I have spoken with say they never feel their work is “good enough” these writing exercises will help you focus and better yourself.