Writing is a peculiar skill — one that you begin learning as a child, but don’t really get the hang of until adulthood. It’s both a basic task and a complex craft, and unlike learning to tie your shoes, there’s always something new to discover, something fundamental to reconsider.
That’s why I find it unfortunate that most writing exercises seem geared toward children, or seem to push you toward writing like a child.
Write about your day. Write about a dream. Write about some pictures.
For youngsters intimidated by writing, or adults whose imaginations have gone dormant, these writing prompts can indeed be helpful. But there’s a lot more to writing than simply Unshackling Your Creativity.
In every genre of writing — indeed, in every sentence — there are decisions to be made about organization and structure, word choice and rhythm. These are what make writing so enervating, so invigorating. They’re what cause so much blockage, even after the writer’s imagination is freed.
Equally unfortunate, to my mind, is the advice often given on these issues:
Just ignore all that stuff. Just go with your gut. Just write write write.
Doesn’t advice of this sort sound rather childish? As if writing were a pursuit on par with doodling — rather than the fiendishly difficult task it is. The task of getting that intricate web of ideas out of your head, onto a page, and into a linear sequence that’s intelligible, engaging, even at moments artful.
So: for writers wishing to stretch their skills and develop a more mature writing style, I recommend trying your hand at these three simple exercises.
1. Copy writing you enjoy (slowly and by hand).
Copying is wrong when your intention is to deceive people by putting your name on the work of someone else. That’s theft, specifically plagiarism.
But when your intention is to learn from good writing, copying can be a form of language meditation. And by copying, I don’t mean copy and paste. I mean copying by hand, with paper and pencil. Slowly. Thoughtfully.
When you copy, you begin to notice things about the rhythm, structure, and word selection in good writing. You’re not distracted by all the other stuff you tend to think about when writing. Are my spelling and grammar correct? Is my writing clear and concise? Are the details relevant and interesting?
They’re good questions to ask after you have written something, or if you’re already a skilled writer and want to become more efficient in your process.
For this exercise, find some writing you want to learn from, something you enjoyed reading. The sort of writing you wish you could write.
How to Copy a Text Mindfully
Copying can sometimes be difficult because it’s so easy. As with meditation, your mind may wander off, or push you to do this task as fast as possible. It wants something more interesting or more challenging to think about.
In such cases, it may help to make the task more difficult:
- Copy the text by hand, rather than by keyboard.
- Copy the text sentence by sentence, rather than word by word.
- Read a full paragraph several times, then close the book (or hide the browser window) and try to reproduce the paragraph from memory.
- Take brief notes about each sentence, then try reproducing the text based on your notes, a few days later.
- Jumble up your list of notes, then try to reconstruct their original sequence and reproduce the text several weeks later.
These last two techniques were favored by one writer-statesman-scientist by the name of Benjamin Franklin. As he writes in his autobiography:
‘About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator… I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them… I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language…’
(Pretty good for someone who dropped out of school at the age of 10.)
A Brief Example
Below are two paragraphs from an essay by Rebecca Solnit entitled ‘Open Door’ from her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
They’re actually the third and fourth paragraphs of the essay. The previous two explain the context of the open door: it’s part of the religious tradition of Passover, meant to allow the spirit of Elijah to enter the house and join the feast, at which point he will ‘answer all the unanswerable questions’.
Those first two paragraphs follow the conventional style of a personal essay. But in the third paragraph, the writing starts to get a little strange. It’s strange but I like it, so I decide to copy it down for further study:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?
Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.
Analyze Your Errors
You may make some mistakes while copying. That’s OK. That’s good. You can learn some interesting things about writing by examining your errors.
- I left out the second comma in the second sentence: ‘That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from and where you will go.’ Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this mistake. It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence or make it less clear for the reader. But it does change the feeling of the sentence, just a little. Solnit had a certain rhythm in mind when she wrote this sentence, a rhythm that feels like ocean waves and fits with the trope of water and dark seas. Removing the second comma disrupts this rhythm.
- I accidentally wrote ‘A student came in with a quote’ instead of ‘A student came in bearing a quote’. This is a natural error, and perhaps ‘with’ is a better choice, since it’s more natural and conversational. ‘Bear’ is a rather uncommon verb these days and sounds a bit old-fashioned. In fact, it sounds kind of Biblical (three wise men came to baby Jesus ‘bearing’ gifts). So, on second thought, ‘bear’ may be a smart choice because it fits with the religious theme of the essay, and it gives the student’s presentation of this ancient quote a sense of majesty. There’s no majesty in my choice of ‘with’.
- I made the mistake of writing ‘How will you go about finding that which is totally unknown to you?’— omitting the words ‘thing the nature of’ between ‘that’ and ‘which’. My sentence is still grammatically correct, and a bit less clunky, but it’s interesting to ask: Why did Solnit put such an awkwardly long quote in the middle of this elegant paragraph? Perhaps she did it for reasons of accuracy; perhaps those are the exact words she copied down. Nevertheless, these words give the question a stronger sense of precision, while also turning the question into a little grammatical puzzle that forces us to slow down in the middle of the paragraph, sort of like a speed bump. Solnit does not wish for us to race past this question, which will become the central idea unifying all the various tangents in her essay.
Those are just a few things I can learn about writing, by slowing down and studying specific examples of actual prose — rather than trying to absorb universal rules for generic situations.
2. Create an outline (and analyze its structure).
A common writing tip is: Before you start writing, create an outline. It’s the English teacher’s equivalent of the fitness trainer’s commandment: Before thou workest out, thou shalt do some stretches.
As an English teacher, I can tell you that this advice is seldom helpful, since novice writers have little idea what makes an outline good or bad (just as untrained athletes may have little idea how to stretch correctly).
Consider this example:
A Simple Outline
OK, not bad. The good thing about this outline is that it’s straightforward and complete. Certainly, it’s better than ‘1. Middle, 2. Beginning’. The problem, you may notice, is that it’s not very helpful.
Here’s another outline, of the type you may have been taught in school:
A Better Outline
- Introduce a question.
- Elaborate on the question with some examples.
- Present some kind of conclusion.
This is a better outline, because it tells us what to do. We’re going to do something with words. With each sentence, we’re going to take action: propose, clarify, illustrate, analyze, elaborate, summarize, exhort, etc. They serve as useful ‘hints’, as Franklin would say.
These three points offer a basic outline of the two paragraphs we read above. But it’s interesting to note that Solnit, a very skilled and experienced writer, actually avoids this connect-the-dots type of writing.
In fact, Solnit probably didn’t create an outline for this part of her essay.
If she had, it might have turned out something like this:
How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you? A student put this question to me a few years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. It strikes me as the basic tactical question in life. After all, the things we want — love, wisdom, grace, or inspiration — are transformative, and we don’t really know what is on the other side of that transformation.
For artists this is also a fundamental problem. It is the job of artists to explore the unknown and unfamiliar. It’s where their work comes from. Likewise scientists, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.
You could argue these two paragraphs are ‘better’ than what Solnit actually wrote. They follow all the Standard Rules of Good Writing: Follow an outline. Remove unnecessary words. Get to the point. This version also eliminates supposedly ‘needless’ details about rituals and art projects.
But here we see the problem with blindly following such rules.
This version feels much more boring.
The style is more impatient, and something about the writer’s personality has been lost. Moreover, the big question Solnit wants to explore doesn’t sound quite so interesting anymore, and the poetic image at the end of the fishermen and the dark sea feels less striking, more forced.
(It turns out the long sentence about the photography project serves an important purpose: it introduces the image of water and makes the final sentence feel more powerful and poetic. Sometimes digressions are good.)
The point is that you don’t need an outline to create great writing.
But outlining can still be helpful — when you outline other people’s writing.
Analyze the Structure of the Text You Copied
Instead of creating boring and unhelpful outlines, let’s create an outline of what Solnit actually wrote. There are ten sentences in the first paragraph, and each one does something particular:
- Deliver an instruction (‘leave the door open’).
- Explain its purpose (evocatively and mysteriously).
- Launch into a story (with time, location, circumstance).
- Introduce a character (with a message).
- Quote the message (a thought-provoking question).
- Mention your response (what the author did and felt).
- Insert a digression (about the unnamed character).
- Elaborate on your response (expanding it into a philosophical issue).
- Clarify the issue (what makes it so problematic).
- Offer some examples, and restate the thought-provoking question.
Like the copying exercise, this method of outlining requires you to slow down and think carefully about the words in this text. But instead of punctuation and word choice, we’re now looking at the sequence and function of each sentence and paragraph.
Looking closely at this outline, I can begin to understand why I enjoyed reading this paragraph. It’s clearly not a series of sentences that anyone would plan in advance. It follows a pattern that is unusual and surprising, without being confusing. Its structure gives the passage a ruffled beauty.
When we create an outline like this, we can also discover a few more interesting things about Solnit’s writing:
- The story that connects sentences 3, 4, 5, and 6 seems like it should be a separate paragraph. In fact, these 10 sentences seem like they could be divided into three or even four paragraphs. But we seem to lose something when we do that. We lose a lot of the rhythm and the mystery and the pleasure in this paragraph. By building up this big paragraph, Solnit forces us to read slowly, to enjoy each phrase, and to think about each idea and the connections between them.
- It’s interesting to consider what’s absent from this paragraph. Typically when you describe a person, you offer details like ‘The student came from a small town and a poor family’ or ‘The student wore black-rimmed glasses and sat every day in the front row’. But Solnit gives us zero descriptive details. Instead, she tells us about something the student created, and the details of that project reveal a lot more about this student — and what Solnit finds interesting and memorable about people — than do such conventional, stereotypical details. (Again, this is not a technique you commonly see in books or blogs about How to Describe a Person; this is a technique you only discover by reading slowly, carefully.)
- The word ‘unknown’ seems to play an important role in Solnit’s memory and imagination. It appears seven times in these two paragraphs, including the quotes by Meno and Oppenheimer. This suggests that the essay could have been organized in other ways: ‘Recently I came across an interesting remark by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Scientists, he says, “live always at the edge of mystery — the boundary of the unknown”. It reminded me of a student a few years ago who shared with me a quote, also about the “unknown”, which got me thinking about doors. Open doors, to be exact…’ Thank goodness Solnit avoided this tedious structure, but it’s a common approach: Start by mentioning something you recently heard or read, then relate it to something from your past, and connect the dots until you arrive at your planned destination. So easy, and so boring.
None of these discoveries may rise to the level of a Writing Tip, and I wouldn’t recommend them to students who still need to master the basics. But for writers with autodidact sensibilities (like Franklin, and all great writers in history, really), these little discoveries can serve as the basis for exercises far more interesting than those in any book about How to Write.
3. Play with the words (and compare your results).
After you have studied a passage of text closely by copying it, and after you have developed a big-picture view of the text by outlining it, one final exercise is to experiment with the words, phrases, ideas, or structures of the text, and see what other interesting things we can learn about writing.
If you lack the motivation to write, this set of exercises can help. As Franklin himself admitted:
‘I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language [of the original text], and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.’
For writers of Extreme Ambition, give these tasks a try.
Retain the Meaning, but Change the Structure
Choose one or two sentences and try restructuring them, with a different rhythm or emphasis, without altering their meaning. For instance:
- Leave the door open. The door into the dark unknown. That’s where you came from and where you’ll go, where the most important things are found.
- The student took photos of people swimming under water, made them big and transparent, and hung them from ceilings in the school. With the light shining through them, the space below became aquatic and mysterious, and the shadows of swimmers traveled across your body as you walked beneath them.
- We want things that are transformative (inspiration, grace, wisdom, love) but we don’t know (or only think we know) what’s on the other side of that transformation.
Retain the Structure, but Change the Topic
Alternatively, try applying the same syntax to a different topic:
- Leave some cookies out for Santa, cookies and some milk. The cookies are an act of gratitude, a sacrifice, a bribe.
- Take the train to the end of the line, the edge of mystery. Go to where the most important things happen, where your comfort zone ends, and where adventure begins.
- Embrace the great unknown, let the world surprise you. Live your life like an artist, like a scientist, sailing to the edge of mystery.
Retain the Phrases, but Reorganize their Sequence
Another option, reorganize the ideas into an entirely different order:
Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies, and a student came in bearing a quote that has stayed with me ever since. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I remember the student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. She said the quote was from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, and I copied it down. The question strikes me as the basic tactical question in life. How do you go about finding the things you want — love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else? We don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. It’s like a door into the dark, the door through which the most important things come, through which you yourself came, and through which you will go again one day.
Bear in Mind
Your goal here isn’t necessarily to craft a better text.
(With writers as skilled as Rebecca Solnit, that is really difficult to do.)
Rather, your goal should be to learn about the nuances of good writing in general. For instance, by doing these exercises, I discovered that:
- My rewrite of the second sentence (‘That’s where you came from and where you’ll go, where the most important things are found’) feels a little less depressing than Solnit’s version, which ends on a suggestion of death (‘That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go’). Considering that her essay is about how ‘the unknown’ is something exciting and adventurous, not something scary or sad, I think my version does a slightly better job supporting this more optimistic sentiment and the theme of Discovery by artists and scientists that Solnit evokes in her fourth paragraph.
- It’s difficult for me to write a sentence as good as the first one (‘Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark’). It’s so plain yet so vivid, so simple yet so complex. Solnit is describing an ordinary action, yet expressing something profound about life. There’s also the ghostly O sound that extends from ‘door’ to ‘open’ to ‘for’ to ‘unknown’, followed by the D in ‘door’ and ‘dark’ — like two heavy knocks upon the door by Elijah, the long-awaited guest. My attempts, by comparison, feel silly and pompously poetic, and have a clumsy rhythm to them.
- My paragraph-long revision retains all the same phrases and details as the original version, but puts them in a more ‘logical’ sequence and omits the religious commandment to ‘leave the door open’. Rather minor changes, yet the result feels radically less exciting. There’s something enthralling about the religious tone that launches the original paragraph, and the nagging question that ends it. My version feels too tame. Solnit’s version grabs you by the shoulders; my version just shrugs the question off.
How to Write Better in English
It's not easy to write well, and writing can often seem unimportant. After all, we live in an era of smartphones, and…
Remember, the main purpose of these exercises is to become more attentive to how great sentences are built, how compelling paragraphs are structured, how memorable messages are organized.
With time, these exercises can also help you become more confident about the choices you make as a writer, particularly with regard to that mysterious thing known as the writer’s ‘voice’. When you learn to decipher how exactly writers constructs their voice, you can become more selective about which elements you want to borrow and how to apply them — rather than blindly imitate them.
Lastly, consider the (playfully rewritten) question posed by Meno:
How will you go about becoming the best writer you can be?
One option is to Follow the Rules of experts, like a good little boy or girl. Another is to Break the Rules blindly, like a teenager craving attention.
Hardest of all is the mature approach, to thoughtfully carve your own path. To strive to become the writer your current self can scarcely imagine.