Although some people try to find the science in it, writing is really an art. Which means it's hard to study precisely, and it's hard for us to know exactly what we can do to get better at it.
But most great writers agree there are two main ways to become a better writer: write a lot, and read a lot.
I could talk about both of these things all day, but today I'll focus on writing.
The more often you write, the more you train your writing "muscle". Knowing this, I wondered whether I could find short exercises to keep me writing in-between working on blog posts like this one. On my days off I like to read a lot and not write much, but if an extra 10 minutes of writing every day could improve my work I'd be happy to put in that little bit of effort.
I searched online for writing exercises to try but I found they all seemed to relate to creative writing and fiction. I didn't want to write about a time I felt sad, or one of my hobbies, or a family member. Those exercises make me feel like I'm in school (most of them are designed for creative writing classes).
I wanted ways to improve my own style of non-fiction, research-based blogging, but nobody seems to be focusing on that. So I came up with some of my own exercises and tried them out over the past couple of weeks to see how well they worked. I kept the exercises to 10 minutes max so I could easily fit one in every morning if I wanted to make them part of my daily routine.
I also sent them out to some of my favourite content writers to see how they fared. I asked each writer to pick as many exercises as they liked, test them out (adjusting the instructions if needed), and let me know what their experience was like.
At the bottom of this post I've included links to some writing prompt collections (writing prompts are things like "where are you from?" and "write about your favourite food") and random word generators. I'll mention in the exercise instructions when I think one of these tools will be particularly handy.
1. Free writing: improve your ability to write on demand
There's a concept called Morning Pages heralded by Julia Cameron that suggests you write 750 words (roughly three sheets of paper) every morning. The idea is that you write without stopping—a stream-of-consciousness about whatever's on your mind. There's even a web app to help you stick to this goal called 750 Words.
But 750 words takes a lot longer than 10 minutes for most of us. That doesn't mean you shouldn't aim for 750 words, but you might want to start with a 10-minute exercise if you're short on time.
Still, the idea of free writing can be beneficial. Personally, I'm not a fan of spending time writing when I know I'll throw away the results. I've learned to maximise the efficiency of the time I spend writing, and to treasure every word I squeeze out.
If you're like me, and you think it's a waste of time—even for 10 minutes—to waffle on about your breakfast (see what I did there?) in a journal every morning, here's what free writing could do for you that you're missing:
It teaches you to write on cue.
If you're a writer, you know how useful this could be. How many times have you sat, staring at a blank page, willing the words to come? Often it's not for lack of inspiration that I can't write—I just can't find the right mood to get me going.
Wouldn't you give up 10 minutes a day to stop wasting hours staring at a blank page?
See, writing works like a muscle. The more you work it, the better you get at it. And the cool thing is, you can train it to work how you want. So if you sit down at the same time every day for 10 minutes to write, it'll start coming more easily as your brain gets used to that schedule. You're training yourself to be able to write on cue.
I've actually done this in the past without focusing specifically on free writing. For a few months I made myself write (drafting only, no editing) from 6-7am every morning. Once it became a routine I got used to being able to pour out the words on cue and my output increased due to all the early morning drafting.
Choose a time when you can write for 10 minutes every day, uninterrupted. Set an alarm to remind you, and sit down to write about whatever's on your mind when the alarm goes off—no matter what. I like to use the Sessions iOS app to time my writing and let me know when I've put in my 10 minutes.
To make it even more useful, try writing in the same place with the same tools every day. This will help when you've got blank page syndrome at some time other than when you're used to hearing your alarm go off, since the rest of your setup will still be familiar enough to trigger your writing muscle into action.
Tip: a writing prompt would work well for this exercise. You want to focus on putting words on the page, not thinking about what to write.
You could also relate this exercise to your work by writing about marketing opportunities for your business, for instance, or challenging yourself to write about your company's ideal customer. When I was writing every morning at 6am, I would always choose a topic to work on the night before so all I had to do in the morning was write.
The Zapier team works remotely, so Matt uses his morning to catch up on what his teammates have been doing. Instead of free writing first thing in the morning, he tried using this exercise later in the workday when he was ready to work on projects and "sometimes it's hard to switch gears and focus".
Here's what he had to say:
I'd do one for a few minutes before digging into an article or review, and it actually seemed to help me jumpstart my creativity... just having some randomly different creative thing to write for no good reason first, and making myself just keep typing before switching gears to work seemed to help.
2. Editing: improve your writing by editing someone else's
If you're doing great at getting words on the page but you think your finished product could be tightened up more, you might want to practise editing rather than free-writing style exercises.
One way I've found to get better at editing my own work is to edit other people's work. Sometimes it's hard to step back from your own writing and see how it's changed over time and where you can improve. Getting feedback is always useful, but seeing concrete examples of how to improve writing that's not so emotionally connected to you can also work wonders.
Here's an exercise I developed to help me structure this process:
Find a blog post in your RSS or Twitter feed. It doesn't matter what the post is about, or what style it's in, though you might want to avoid any authors you know well or feel intimidated by, as that could skew your learning. I found the less I knew about the author, the easier it was to focus on the editing process.
Read through the post once. Then go back through the post and look for as many ways to improve it as you can. Keep an eye out for the following:
- spelling or grammatical errors
- unnecessary words ("that" or "the" can often be removed without ruining a sentence)
- long sentences that can be split up or shortened
- confusing or vague points
- anywhere you can add formatting to improve clarity (e.g. bold, italics)
- anywhere an image could aid the reader's understanding
- anywhere an example could add clarity
It might help to copy the text of the post and paste it into your text editor so you can adjust the post as you go. When your 10 minutes are up, throw your edits away (you don't want to confuse them with your own work in the future).
Don't forget to notice what the author's done well as you're editing, too. If they have a style you particularly like, or they've made an especially good choice of words, take note of that so you can learn from it.
Jimmy chose a post from a blog he knows well: Priceonomics. He said he'd always felt as a reader that Priceonomics' content was "interesting but long-winded". He tried a hand at editing one of their posts to see if he was right.
It turns out that my intuition was right.
Here's a perfect example. There are eight colons or semicolons in the article. Instead of using them for emphasis, the writer used them to extend sentences, creating several run-on sentences.
I ended up removing several sentences altogether and tightened up a few others. I cut out adjectives and removed as many colons as I could.
Jimmy's takeaway was an interesting one: although he found opportunities for making the content more succinct, he noted that the Priceonomics blog is widely read regardless of how he thinks the content could be improved.
That was my biggest takeaway from this exercise. Perhaps fretting over the little details is less important than sharing interesting ideas on a regular basis year after year.
Len found editing writing he was unfamiliar with to be a challenge at first. His experience with this exercise brought up some really interesting lessons about understanding other writers and different styles:
...at first, I tended to try and rewrite things the way I would normally write them myself. What surprised me was how quickly I found myself repeating the same things over and over again: sentence structure, vocabulary, etc...
When I stepped back and tried to edit it as a reader rather than a writer (e.g., "how can I make this article more useful for me?", versus "how can I make this article sound more like me?"), I began to focus on edits that truly improved clarity and effectiveness, and that's where I began to get real value from the exercise. I didn't just get practice finding weak spots and improving them, but I began to pick up on strong spots and internalize different ways that other writers make strong points. Later, I found myself incorporating some of those techniques in my own writing.
Len pointed out that although reading can help you pick up style and technique to include in your own work, this exercise did the same thing on a more interactive level:
Unlike the way I normally read, I found myself absorbing style and technique far more than the actual message of the content ... It's an exercise that I'm definitely going to continue doing.
Jeremey found that the piece he used for this exercise was mostly free of errors, making him dig harder to find ways to improve it.
I still found some of the same mistakes I make in my own writing like:
- Unnecessary words like “For many of us…” and “Most of us…”
- Qualifiers like “Regardless of xyz…”
- Weak words like “Usually”
- Longer, convoluted sentences instead of short, snappy ones
Jeremey also pointed out how this exercise can be useful in training us to be better editors of our own work:
One of my least favorite activities is reading my own writing. I absolutely hate it, but I know it’s necessary. When I’m reading someone else’s writing, I can be a bit more critical, which trains my eyes to find these same mistakes the next time I’m proofing my own post.
3. Extend and advance: improve your storytelling
There's an improvisation game I played in an acting class once that's equal parts hard and hilarious. We called it "extend and advance". It's a storytelling game that requires one person to tell a story based on a prompt like "holidays" or "camping" either verbally or through mime. Their partner tells them to extend when they want more detail on a particular point, or advance when they want the storyteller to move on to something new.
Both actions are tricky for the storyteller, who has to maintain a coherent narrative while advancing to new aspects of their story every time they're asked to. They also have to find enough off-the-cuff material to extend on any point when asked.
This can be a little easier when you're working with a partner who suggests when to expand and when to advance, but you can set up a solo version of this exercise to help you improve your storytelling skills.
Here's an example of how I'd structure it:
Plan your intervals like this, and keep track with a timer or by watching the clock:
- 30 secs: Free writing to get the story going.
- 1 min: Extend on whatever point you're up to when the timer beeps.
- 1 min: Advance the story to a new point.
- 1 min: Extend on whatever point you're up to when the timer beeps.
- 1 min: Advance the story to a new point.
- 30 secs: Wrap it up.
You don't have to use this for fiction, even though it's a story-based exercise. If you'd rather, write about something happening in your own life, or a topic you're interested in.
Tip: Try a random word generator to get you started for this one.
The 1-minute intervals went more quickly than I expected. I looked at a clock rather than setting up a timer, which worked fine.
I chose the word "pronunciation" at random from the homepage of dictionary.com. I would choose something I have more of a connection next time, as I struggled to come up with anything to write throughout the exercise. Then again, that's part of the challenge.
Switching between extending on a point and advancing to something new was tricky, but fun. I found advancing the hardest part, since it came after a minute of extending, regardless of where I was up to so I often had to find a quick way to finish up my thought and think of a way to advance to a new point.
As the exercise went on, I found ways to choose points to advance to that I knew I could extend on. I don't think this defeats the purpose of the exercise, because as my brain warmed up to what I was doing, I actually started thinking faster than required and thinking further ahead than just the current task. This helped me pull my writing together into a more smooth flow between points.
Definitely a task I'd try again, and I think it could be useful in longer stretches, too.
4. Rewriting: improve your creativity
A big part of editing and improving your writing work is rewriting. How many times do you delete and rewrite the same sentence? Or reword it in your head? I do this all the time, constantly looking for a better phrase or word to get my point across.
I try to always leave at least a day in-between drafting and editing a piece. Mostly this comes from my boredom of working on the same piece for too long—my brain likes to have a break and think about something else for a while. But it's actually good for my work. Leaving enough time that I can do other things, and have a full night's sleep before coming back to my draft means my subconscious can continue thinking about the topic while I'm not aware of it. When I come back fresh the next day, I can easily think of better ways to reword my points, or see mistakes I missed the first time round.
John Cleese says the same thing happens for him. He can often easily see a solution to a problem in his writing after sleeping on it.
In the video above, John tells a story that illustrates this process perfectly (it starts at 2:30). He wrote a script one day that he really liked, but ended up losing the script later. Since he couldn't find it anywhere but was so happy with the original, he forced himself to write it out again from memory. Yep, a total rewrite from scratch.
Later on, John found the original and was curious enough to compare the two. He found that the second version was actually noticeably better than the original. Somehow, John's subconscious had continued to work on his ideas without him realising, so when he wrote the script the second time he did a better job.
The extra time (and sleep) in-between drafting and rewriting is key here. This is when your brain gets to work on the ideas subconsciously so you can improve your writing the next day.
So here's an exercise to help you practise rewriting in short bursts:
Tip: Try a writing prompt to give this piece some structure. This can make it easier to rewrite.
Interestingly, I found myself thinking about how I'd rewrite this piece while I was writing it.
The next day I spent 5 minutes rewriting this piece from scratch. I'd written the prompt word, "simplicity" on a new page yesterday so I wouldn't be tempted to read my original draft before I rewrote it.
When I finished the rewrite I wasn't convinced I'd done any better than yesterday, but I read through both to compare. What I noticed most was today's version was more succinct—as if it was an edited version of yesterday's draft. This doesn't surprise me too much. I tend to be a verbose drafter, and often cut a lot when I'm editing.
I counted this exercise as a win, because it definitely helped me express myself more clearly and succinctly the second time around. I'm not sure I'd ever want to rewrite an entire blog post from scratch, though.
5. Combining: improve your ability to create new connections
A big part of creativity—and in particular, having new ideas—is finding new ways to connect old things. As the saying goes, everything is a remix.
So it pays to improve your ability to see new connections between existing ideas. Here's an exercise to give your connecting brain a workout:
Create a big list on paper of suggestions you can use in these categories:
- People (e.g. grandmother, teacher, baby, pilot)
- Places (e.g. hospital, Paris, farm, high school)
- Things (e.g. ice cream, bicycle, puppy, measles)
- Themes (e.g. grief, laughter, inequality, meaning of life)
Tear up all the suggestions so they're on separate pieces of paper and throw them into a bucket or hat.
Or for easier setup, just use a random word generator. Keep generating words until you have two that come from different categories above.
Each time you do this exercise, grab two pieces of paper from the bucket and write for 10 minutes on how they could be connected. You can write a story that incorporates the two, relate a memory or some information you know about an example connection from real life, or simply write down your musings about how these two ideas could be connected.
You might be surprised by how many ideas you get from this exercise—after all, it's forcing the process of idea creation that we all go through naturally, so it's great practice.
I used a random word generator for this one and clicked through until I had two words from different categories. I ended up with "lost" (theme) and "tail" (thing).
I wrote about my tail bone, and the idea of humans having tails at some point. It turned into mostly a musing full of questions, because I barely know any of the science around that idea.
It did encourage me to read up about human evolution and how tails fit in, which I count as a win.
6. Headlining: improve your ability to come up with new topics
Coming up with new topic ideas is one of the hardest parts of my job. And although it's not writing per se, it's a big part of the writing process. After all, I need a good idea before I can start a draft.
Sometimes I need to force a short period of thinking with a pen and paper to come up with new topic ideas. I might come up with a lot of junk, but often there'll be one or two gems that come from an exercise like this. And what's 7 minutes a day if it makes my job easier?
So here's the exercise:
Choose 10 headlines from your RSS or Twitter feed to riff off. Write them on a sheet of paper and step away from your computer and your phone.
Spend the next 5 minutes coming up with as many topic ideas as you can. If you have multiple blogs you can think of ideas for any of them—don't limit yourself to one.
The 10 headlines you start with are just to give your brain something to chew on. If you find your mind wandering into other areas, let it go. If you don't need 10 headlines to help you get started, try the exercise with just a blank sheet of paper.
But as hard as it is, don't look at your computer or your phone. You can, however, stare into space and daydream as much as you want. These things are good for us, and this 5-minute exercise is as much about training your brain to be more creative as it is coming up with concrete topic ideas.
I was surprised at how few headlines I came up with in 5 minutes. I thought of just 8, even though I was already getting some vague ideas as I wrote down my 10 inspiration headlines. This might work better with only 5 headlines to use as inspiration next time.
Jeremey found the same thing I did: he came up with fewer headlines than he'd expected—just seven.
I thought somewhere in the range of 10-15 (at least two a minute). There were two roadblocks that prevented me from coming up with more. First, I kept on coming back to pitches I already had in Todoist, or I would think of posts I had just recently read or tweeted out. I found it hard to break fro the mold and come up with something new.
Second, the critical side of my brain kept kicking on and evaluating the viability of topics before they even got on the paper. If I could have ignored that part of my brain, I would have finished with more ideas, but many of them would have been deleted in the end.
I didn't evaluate my ideas as carefully as Jeremey did while doing this exercise, so I ended up with a page of headlines I mostly didn't want to use.
Jory found the process of using other headlines to spark new ideas a bit confusing:
I was a little confused reading through these instructions at first. Do I read 10 headlines and then step away and write similar ones? Are the 10 headlines supposed to directly influence what I write, or are they just their to get me inspired?
His confusion prompted an interesting idea that could make this exercise work better:
This might be easier if you use a theme prompt and focus the exercise on coming up with unique angles to take with your writing. So much of blogging and writing is showing your unique take on a subject, and I think that would be beneficial for anyone trying to get into this line of work!
Writing prompts and word generators
To help you kick off your writing for each exercises, you might find some of these sites useful:
- Randomlists.com (generates lists of random words)
- watchout4snakes (random word generator)
- Daily Teaching Tools (writing prompts)
- @writingprompt (writing prompt tweets)
- Easy Street Prompts (writing prompts)
If you have any writing exercises that I should know about, please leave a comment. I'd love to have more options up my sleeve for improving my writing.
And let me know if you try any of these yourself—it's fascinating to see how different writers react to the exercises.
Image credits: 750 Words screenshot via Paperback Writer