12 Exercises to Improve Writing Skills (Proven to Help Writers)
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If you’re anything like me, you have good writing days, but most days are quite the opposite. Unfortunately, relying on the random bursts of inspiration at 3AM combined with five shots of espresso with varying sleep deprivation is just not a sustainable strategy.
Whether you’re a creative writer working on your next novel, you’re running out of creative social copy, or you started your essay an hour before your deadline, becoming a better writer will help you save time and maximize your output.
The good news is that everyone can become a better writer simply by practicing the right exercises. That’s why we’ve compiled the very best ones to help you write more clearly, quickly, and creatively.
Let’s get started!
1. Find your perfect writing environment
Let’s first talk about finding the right writing environment for you. Like finding the right gym with the right machines, price point, and crowdedness, finding the optimal writing environment can make a huge difference.
You might be used to working at your desk while listening to free form Jazz. Others may enjoy working in complete silence with dimmed lighting. The first step is to experiment and challenge your writing habits. Look at your current writing space and answer the following questions:
- Do you prefer writing on a computer or by hand?
- How is the lighting? Do you prefer dimmer or brighter environments?
- At what time do you work best? Morning, afternoon or evening? Does it depend on the day?
- What music do you listen to (if at all)?
- Do you prefer writing in nature, in complete private, or in a public cafe?
Try writing at the park today and see how you like it compared to being in a bustling cafe. The ultimate goal is to keep things fresh and get your creative juices flowing! So don’t worry if things don’t click right away. Experimenting takes time, but it will make you more in tune with how your external environment affects your writing.
2. Warm up with freewriting
Now that you’ve found the right writing environment, it’s time to finally start writing. One of the most effective ways to start is to warm up with freeflow writing. Grab your pen and paper (or laptop of course), and set a timer for 10 minutes.
Once the timer starts ticking, write about everything that is on your mind - without stopping. Let it be a natural stream of consciousness.
You can write about literally anything, from describing what you see in front of you or gushing about your newly adopted puppy. Whatever it may be, don’t think twice and just write. Forget about grammar, spelling, and cohesiveness - no one is going to read this but you!
This famous exercise was coined by Peter Elbow in 1973 to improve brainstorming. He is quoted as saying "The consequence [of writing] is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing until you get to the right meanings in the right words. Only in the end will you know what you are saying.”
To his point, you’re never going to write a masterpiece on your first try. It’s important to practice transferring the thoughts in your mind to the piece of paper in front of you.
3. Write metaphor lists
This next exercise will be helpful for both creative and prose writers alike. Similes, metaphors, and synecdoches are all wonderful ways to tell stories and express ideas more colorfully. Metaphor lists are one of the best and most fun exercises to take your writing to the next level.
How to start:
- Create two columns
- In one column, write only nouns like grass, a cat, glass, a tea kettle. This can be anything that can be perceived with your senses.
- In the other column, write down intangible and abstract ideas such as peace, war, love, happiness, knowledge, hate.
- Take one word from the noun column and one word from a concept column and create a metaphor or simile. For example, “Happiness is like glass - it can be around you but remain invisible until you change your perspective."
4. Copyworking: transcribe your favorite author
Transcribing your favorite author’s work, also known as copyworking, is an exercise to help you internalize an author’s syntax, diction, tone, flow, and cadence, until their “voice is in your bones.”
We’re not saying to go out and plagiarize someone’s work and claim it as your own. Take your favorite pieces of writing and copy them word for word as a learning exercise. This may be more effective when copying by hand.
Isn’t this cheating?
Famous authors such as Jack London and Hunter S. Thompson have used copywriting to develop their own unique writing styles. Monks in the middle ages copied religious texts by hand to both preserve ancient writing and deepen their understanding of religious texts.
Pro Tip: Find new ways to reword phrases with Wordtune
There are many uses for Wordtune, but one simple task you can use is to simply take any sentence from your favorite piece of work and choose from a list of different ways it can be better worded. Discover new ways to phrase sentences, and practice recognizing better sounding sentences.
5. Master the outline with "Jeopardy!" questions
Starting a new writing project from scratch is very intimidating. One of the best ways to overcome the mental hurdle of just getting started is to create an outline. In this exercise, you’ll learn how to create great outlines with a fun little twist.
If you’re unfamiliar, Jeopardy is a classic game show where contestants compete to answer a series of difficult trivia questions. The questions are uniquely formatted as statements.
In this exercise, choose a topic that you are interested in and gather ten facts about it. Let’s take the dog breed Shih-Tzus for example. After reading an essay about Shih-Tzus, here are the ten facts I’ve gathered about them:
- Shih Tzus are a Tibetan breed that was sent to Chinese royalty as gifts
- Shih Tzus have a life expectancy of 10 to 16 years
- Shih Tzus are also known as Lion Dogs
- Shih Tzus are closely associated with Buddhism
- Shih Tzus were brought to the United States in the late 1940s
- Shih Tzus are hypoallergenic
- Shih Tzus are known for their companionship and calm temperament
- Shih Tzus were officially recognized by the AKC on September 1st 1969
- Chinese traders refused to trade Shih Tzus with Western nations because they were so revered
- Shih Tzus are a cross between Lhasa Apso and Pekingese
The second step is to format them into Jeopardy questions. The fact “Shih Tzus are a Tibetan breed that was sent to Chinese royalty as gifts” would become “This Tibetan dog breed was gifted to Chinese royalty.”
This exercise will ultimately help you rephrase sentences in a style that you may not be comfortable with.
6. Edit other peoples’ work
Editing is not easy by all means, but you can be a fresh pair of eyes for another writer and improve your proofreading skill. Editing means carefully proofreading someone’s work and actively finding ways to improve on it, which is a transferable skill to help you identify how to become a better writer yourself.
But before you agree to edit someone else’s work, be sure to carefully set expectations from the get-go. Practice giving constructive feedback, which is an integral skill when it comes to creative work where they can be very defensive of their work.
The challenge in editing a draft is that sometimes we accept the initial version we get simply because of a cognitive bias. The anchoring bias causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given. It skews our decisions when we are presented with numbers, or texts.
Whenever you're not sure whether a sentence is phrased correctly or you are under the spell of the anchor bias, use Wordtune to conjure different alternatives. If you are a non-native English speaker, editing others' work can teach you through examples how to improve your fluency, and drastically up your skill.
7. Limit yourself: write without adverbs
Psychologists agree that constraints make us more creative. In this exercise, start by imposing limitations to your writing.
You may choose to start by writing without adverbs, which are modifiers that alter meanings of verbs. This includes work like quickly, very, unfortunately, very, well, tomorrow, today, even, already, afterward, near, and lowly.
While adverbs have a time and place, they can be overused and weaken your writing. When eliminating adverbs, you are forced to utilize stronger verbs.
For example, “she ate her pizza quickly” can turn into “she inhaled her pizza.”
Here are a few other ways to limit your writing:
- Write without adjectives
- Exclude words that start with a certain letter
- Try to write a story using only six words
8. Describe your dream in detail
Let’s explore a new part of your brain in this exercise - your hippocampus to be exact. Your dreams can be extremely mysterious, fascinating, and even terrifying.
Is there a better topic to write about?
If you’re able to remember your dreams, consider starting a dream journal. Put a journal by your bed and immediately document everything you remember from your dream as soon as you wake up in the morning.
While there are added advantages of keeping a dream journal, this can be a creative way to explore new ideas to write about!
9. Write a fake ad
Time to put on your sales hat and get your creative juices flowing. Grab a random idea from Random Idea Generator or the top of your head and create a fake ad for it!
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be concise: nobody wants to read long walls of text
- Think about your core audience and how you are solving their needs
- Focus on your one unique selling point
- Be controversial and stand out
10. Write a letter to your younger and future self
Over the course of your life, you’ve gathered a tremendous amount of stories. Stories of love, heartbreaks, and new experiences. Take a moment to look at all the lessons you’ve gathered along the way and write a letter to your younger self. In this writing exercise, focus on transcribing your emotions on paper. The more clear and concise you are, the more effective your stories will be.
On the flipside, you can write a letter to your future self. What are you looking forward to? What are you dreading? What values do you want to remind yourself in ten, fifteen, twenty years? To make it extra fun, consider using a service to actually receive the letter in the future.
11. ELI5: Explain Like I’m Five
Popularized by the reddit community Explain Like I'm Five, ELI5 is the exercise of condensing complex topics and boiling them down into terms a five year old can understand. Distilling complicated topics into simpler terms forces you to gain a deep understanding of a difficult subject. Converting that into a 1st grade level of understanding also helps you think deeply about your core audience.
Pro tip: Make your writing more casual with Wordtune
With Wordtune, you can change any formal language into something more casual with just one click. Let’s take an explanation of the James Webb telescope for example.
Ready to work out your writing muscles?
By practicing these exercises on a regular basis, you'll soon find that your writing skills have improved significantly! So what are you waiting for? Start practicing today and become the best writer you can be!