Getting started as a writer tends to go one of two ways: either you sit down and the words flow easily, or you stare at a blank screen and wonder why the hell you thought you could do this.
But it’s not just new writers who get struck down by a creative drought.
Lack of inspiration, flat motivation or dips in confidence are all contributing factors that see writers young and old struggle to find their muse.
Whether it’s mid-manuscript writers’ block or failure to launch, a little bit of mental exercise can help you get you over the bump.
So if you’re needing a creative pick-me-up or looking for some quick writing tasks to help warm your brain before the main event, check out our top 30 writing exercises to get your creative juices flowing.
Exercise #1: Write a story in six words or fewer
This is an activity for extended prose writers who love a challenge.
This exercise will help you to be concise with your words and hone the ability to create an emotional impact in a very short space of time.
While there is little that can be done to develop plot and character in such tight constraints, there should be hints of the greater picture – just like in Hemingway’s story.
Need a hand getting started? Check out @WriterlyTweets‘ daily six-word writing prompts over on Twitter.
Exercise #2: Practise with flash fiction
If the six-word story is a little too hardcore, then why not have a go at flash fiction instead?
The definition of flash fiction varies across the industry, with some classing it as pieces under 100 words, and others allowing up to 1,000.
Like the six-word challenge, the limits of flash fiction force a writer to be clever, not allowing for any wasteful lines or general waffling.
If you find yourself struggling with redundant passages or tautologies, this could be the exercise for you.
Check out our ultimate guide to flash fiction to fully familiarise yourself with the style and get some hot tips for getting started.
Exercise #3: Experiment with genre
Even the staunchest of genre writers can become bored with their chosen field. After all, too much of a good thing is bad, right?
If the villain of your crime thriller is becoming predictable, or the magic of your high fantasy story isn’t sparkling quite how you’d like, perhaps it’s time for a cross-genre holiday.
Working a style outside of your regular writing or reading habits is challenging, but the new perspective can be very refreshing.
You don’t try anything groundbreaking; just have fun experimenting with tropes of an unfamiliar genre, then head back to your own work with new eyes – and new ideas.
For an added creative kick, why not transport your medieval princeling to adventure in the modern world, or send your hard-boiled noir detective off on a nonsensical romp through Wonderland?
Exercise #4: Use visual prompts
‘Write a story based on this picture’ prompts are extremely common in writing classes and internet forums. A single image can elicit a range of responses from the audience.
There are many free stock image websites you can utilise for inspiration, such as Adobe Stock, which features a Curator’s Pick collection of their favourite photos, images and illustrations.
National Geographic is another great option, as their photo of the day subsection showcases beautiful shots from a range of natural and urban landscapes.
If their current offering doesn’t spark joy, you can easily browse through their archive of past submissions until you find an image that resonates.
This is the prompt that keeps on giving, as approaching the same image in a different mood may inspire a whole new story all over again.
Exercise #5: Find a prompt generator
Using randomly generated writing prompts is a quick and easy way to get a bunch of fresh story ideas all up in your face all at once.
The benefit of prompts is that they are specific but random, giving you a clear direction while still allowing original creativity.
And, like with visual stimuli, no two writers will produce the same story, even when utilising the same source material.
The Story Shack has a prompt generator currently capable of producing 2.5 BILLION ideas, each providing you with a word count, genre, character, prop, key sentence and a bonus task.
If you’re after something more specific, this UK-based website has a range of prompt generators including first lines, random dialogue, subjects for freewriting, and a quick plot generator.
It’s guaranteed to keep you busy for hours – or years!
Exercise #6: Draw inspiration from ‘word of the day’
Developing a writing routine is widely considered a key stepping stone to success, and regularly incorporating a quick writing exercise into your daily word-sesh is a great way to awaken your creativity.
While Merriam-Webster utilises a truly random range of words (August 1st, 2020 was ‘hotdog’), Dictionary.com appears to have a penchant for the more obscure, with ‘bellicose’, ‘rhathymia’ and ‘anfractuous’ all making an appearance recently.
It doesn’t matter if the ‘Word of the Day’ is new or known to you. If it’s new, you have a great chance to build your vocabulary; if you know it, your creativity comes into play.
Anthropomorphised hotdog, anyone?
Exercise #7: Dabble in poetry
It’s rare to find a creative writer who is truly adept at all three major disciplines – poetry, prose and script – as many tend to generate towards one or the other.
As a dedicated prose writer, it can be incredibly intimidating to branch out to something different (speaking from experience!), but trying your hand at poetry can give your writing the creative boost it’s been missing.
Working with poetry strengthens your ability to create clever metaphors free of cliche.
Utilising poetic devices such as hyperbole, alliteration and assonance can add a beautiful, lyrical touch to your prose – one that is impactful and memorable.
Exercise #8: Try your hand at a script
Like poetry, scriptwriting comes with its own set of skills and benefits for the prose writer.
Whether you’re struggling with a scene or looking to get started, approaching it with a screen or stage writer’s mindset will help unlock creativity – and strengthen your writing.
As script is used to direct a visual medium, there’s no room for an internal monologue or a narrator dipping into a character’s thoughts. There’s only dialogue and action.
Speaking of which…
Exercise #9: Write a scene using only dialogue
Writing authentic dialogue is key to creating believable characters.
If you’re the type of writer who builds their novel around an established protagonist, playing around with a dialogue-centric scene is a fun, creative way to develop their voice and personality.
The way a character speaks can tell the audience a lot about who they are and how they relate to people.
Writing a casual back-and-forth (perhaps between your novel’s hero and villain, for an extra kick!) will help get you in the right frame of mind to write that character, and may even unlock some idiosyncrasies you might not have discovered otherwise.
The dialogue doesn’t have to be spoken. Perhaps your characters are chatting via email or text message; elements like timestamps (signifying how long between responses) and even emojis can allow you to convey even more.
Exercise #10: Write a conversation WITHOUT dialogue
The more challenging flip side to Exercise #9 is writing a conversation without dialogue.
Communication comes in both verbal and non-verbal forms, and the facial expressions, gestures and body language a character exudes in conversation can sometimes be more telling than the words they say.
This exercise is a great way of showing emotion; instead of a character expressing their disdain for something said, a wordless conversation forces the writer to show their physical reaction.
This is certainly challenging, but Angela Ackerman’s Emotion Thesaurus is a great tool to help you describe feelings rather than state them.
Regularly engaging with this type of activity will help you become more in-tune with the way your characters react, and train your mind to think a little more creatively in regards to conversation.
Exercise #11: Write verbatim
Verbatim is a format generally used for audio-to-text transcription where every utterance is recorded, including stutters, fillers (ums, ahs, hmms), and incorrect grammar – word for word, letter for letter.
But it can also be great creative stimuli. Taking note of exactly what you hear is a great way to reflect authentic communication in your writing.
So, next time you’re in a coffee shop or other public place for a writing session, ditch the headphones and listen to what’s going on around you.
Of course, you don’t want to invade or compromise someone’s privacy by reproducing everything you hear; this exercise is simply a means of capturing inspiration, not transcribing a stranger’s life into a work of fiction.
Exercise #12: Engage in regular, uninterrupted freewriting
During my school days, our class often engaged in what the teacher called USSW: Uninterrupted, Silent, Sustained Writing.
This 15-minute writing blitz, where pens were required to be moving at all times, felt like an eternity to a nine-year-old, but revisiting this exercise as an adult highlights how truly fast our minds can work under pressure.
Allocating a short window of time where you simply must write has many noted benefits, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It may take some practice to be able to ready, steady, write.
But regular freewriting can help develop greater depths of emotion, break down impossible expectations of producing perfection, and unearth nodes of inspiration that can be developed into larger ideas.
Exercise #13: Try the music shuffle
If freewriting gives you performance anxiety and the blank canvas of uninhibited creativity makes your brain freeze, try shuffling your favourite playlist and let the music inspire you.
This is a little more hardcore than simple background music (more on that later), as the idea of this writing task is to actually complete a flash fiction piece before the end of the track.
When the next song starts, you’re right into a new story!
Pretty hectic, I know, but putting a tight time constraint on such activities forces your mind to work quickly, and this small stress can help produce better ideas.
While you’re unlikely to create literary genius in the space of three and a half minutes, this high-intensity emotional and thematic journey of sound can unearth some raw gems just waiting to be polished.
Exercise #14: Be Inspired By Atmospheric Music
If you’re not up for the pure chaos that is the music shuffle, you can still enjoy the inspiring sound of background music in the form of some ambient tunes.
Popular with D&D creators and fans, Tabletop Audio has hundreds of free BGM tracks to get your creativity pumping.
While strongly geared toward speculative fiction settings, there are a handful of urban locales to inspire you, such as a shopping mall, a high-speed car chase and even a war zone.
The use of atmospheric music is also a handy tool for those of us who are easily distracted by silence, or often to find themselves singing along to their favourite songs instead of writing.
Next time you’re struggling to get in the creative zone, pump up those ambient tunes and let creativity take the wheel.
Exercise #15: Write fan fiction
While this little corner of the internet has long been sneered at by many ‘serious’ wordsmiths, dabbling in fan fiction can be a great way to clear the pipes and rekindle your creative flame.
Despite much of the community thriving on sharing their creations and reimaginings of famous stories (and people), it’s not a requirement.
If you’d rather keep your work private, that’s entirely up to you; it won’t diminish the creativity you’ve unlocked.
Writing fan fiction gives you the freedom to play around with concepts, styles and themes you may not have otherwise considered, while removing some of the difficulty of having to craft original characters, plot or settings.
On top of that, a number of published novels found their humble beginnings in fan fiction, so this simple creative exercise might unknowingly lay the foundations for something huge.
Exercise #16: Retell a known story
While inherently a form of fan fiction, retellings of established works are more ‘palatable’ to some literary types, and many have been published branded as such.
This type of writing enables you to take the original themes, world or concept deeper, reimagine the tale in a different time and place, or focus on a previously underexplored character.
Exploring new facets of a classic story enables your creativity to run free by drawing inspiration from the source material.
Did Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters have more going on behind the scenes to explain their cruelty? What if Pennywise deserved our sympathy, or James Bond was masterminding evil?
Bet your mind is already ticking.
Exercise #17: Have fun with madlibs
Adapted from the popular 1950s phrasal template party game, ‘madlibs’ for creative writers involves turning prompt words into a story rather than simply filling in the blanks.
The challenge of fitting seemingly unrelated words into a cohesive story can produce some truly creative ideas.
If you have an active presence on social media, asking your friends and followers to provide you with one random word is a quick way to gather prompts.
However, words gathered this way could be unintentionally skewed due to readers adjusting their suggestions based on previous posts.
To get a truly random experience, word generators are a great option, and you can adjust your challenge even further by selecting just verbs or nouns.
Exercise #18: Try sensory deprivation brainstorming
Popping up in metropolitan areas around the globe, sensory deprivation tanks are one person’s haven and another’s worst nightmare.
Sure, floating alone in a pitch-black tank of heavily salted water might not sound like creative bliss, but the benefits are clearly documented.
Removing all external stimuli has shown a reduction of stress, anxiety and chronic pain, while increasing a person’s creativity and problem-solving skills.
While access to one of these high-tech tanks is not necessarily on-hand for the average writer, there are ways of depriving your brain of its senses at home without filling your bathtub with kilos of Epsom salts.
All you need is an isolated dark room, a blindfold, some good quality earplugs and time to let your mind wander free.
Exercise #19: Write A Blog
Not all writers are bloggers. I myself can’t regularly document anything in an online journal despite remaining dedicated to working on the same novel for seventeen years.
But blogs don’t need to be recounts of your day-to-day life – or even related to your writing process. Curating a blog unrelated to writing can be refreshing and also help establish routine.
Passionate about handicrafts? Cats? Dogs? Blog about it! A change is as good as a holiday, and taking a break from the all-consuming task of novel writing will help restart your creativity.
If you don’t want to waste precious writing time not working on your novel, then why not try writing a blog as one of your characters?
You’ll still get that much-needed change of pace and will continue to develop your unique voice. Win-win.
Exercise #20: Describe a character without describing them
People are more than their skin, eye and hair colour – we all know this, and yet quite often we automatically rely on physical descriptors to build a sense of character.
Telling the reader what a character looks like, how they dress or how they are perceived by others is the quickest and easiest way for this information to be conveyed.
But it’s also boring.
To strengthen your ‘show, don’t tell’ skills, spend some time describing characters without describing them as a person.
For example, write a description of their bedroom and use it to unveil some hidden character traits.
Is their floordrobe indicative of their chronic depression? What does a second glass of water on the bedside table reveal about someone who lives alone?
How one keeps their home, gets ready in the morning or even wears their clothes all tell a different story. Find out what they’re saying about your characters and have some fun!
Exercise #21: Emotionally describe an object
Our physical and emotional states actively impact how we view and respond to the world around us.
A person feeling tired and miserable after a night on the booze is going to react to the bright, warming sunrise far differently to someone waking after the best sleep of their life.
How would a happy character describe two squirrels in a tree? How about someone who just broke up with a long-term partner?
Practise writing descriptions of objects or scenes from the perspective of a character experiencing different emotions and refrain from actively stating how they feel.
If a reader can determine what emotion the character felt when they looked at that tree, then consider it a job well done.
Exercise #22: Create empathy for a dislikeable character
When it comes to writing well-rounded characters, you need to explore both positive traits and notable flaws.
It goes without saying that the villain is defined by traditionally dislikeable qualities, while the hero (mostly) embodies all that is good.
But there’s good and bad in all of us, and if you want your villain to be authentic, you need to find some balance.
A fun way to hone your mastery of this skill is to intentionally create a character filled with all the traits you personally detest and try to make yourself (and your reader) like them.
Whether you choose to present the negative in an endearing way or provide reasoning and insight into the character’s villainy is up to you – it’s all about that empathetic end result.
Exercise #23: Do the time warp
If you subscribe to the philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s theory of ‘The 7-Year Cycles of Life’, then it stands to reason that your characters also exhibit these distinct periods of physical and emotional development.
By investigating your character’s life at each of these crucial changes, you’re able to gain a better understanding of who they are – and tap into a new vein of creative stimuli.
What does the year of your character’s birth reveal to their 21-year-old self? Has a tumultuous childhood led the adult self to enjoy and appreciate all things simple and whimsical as they yearn for what they missed?
You can choose to document these life stages in biographical details or even a series of dot points, but if you want the full creative experience, try writing some flash or microfiction to really capture the formative moment.
Exercise #24: Leave it to the dice
Whether you’re a reader of highbrow contemporary literature, compelling genre fiction or fast-finishing bestsellers, we all have all themes, character archetypes and tropes that appeal to us more than others.
If you’re setting out on a new writing adventure and are not quite sure where to start, compose a list of your six favourite genres, settings, character flaws and conflicts.
To get started, roll a die and record what number is thrown to decide which item from that category you will use.
For example, your ‘genre’ roll might produce the number 4, which corresponds to the fourth item on your genre list, which may be ‘romance‘.
Repeat this for each category until you have a complete, albeit random, story brief.
As you have selected from a list of your favourite reading habits, theoretically you will create your ultimate story – or a red-hot mess featuring a self-conscious high school soccer star caught in a love triangle while trying to save the world in an epic space opera.
Either way, you’ll have got that creativity flowing.
Exercise #25: Create a full sensory scene
The most captivating reading experiences have the ability to fully immerse you in the world of words, from the tingling of a fleeting touch from a forbidden lover right down to the belly-rumbling scent of the local bakery.
Senses help transport readers to a different time and place by evoking memories of tangible sensory experiences.
Spend some time describing settings and situations with particular care to include each of the five senses – kind of like this common anxiety-quelling grounding exercise.
Of course, when working on novels or short stories, you don’t want every swathe of exposition to read like a sensory checklist.
But a little bit of extra practice on harnessing the less commonly used scene descriptors of taste and smell can help take your writing to the next level.
Exercise #26: Play with senses
Following on from sensory writing exercises is the opportunity to give your descriptions an extra creative twist.
Most of us are used to seeing colours or hearing music, but what if things were different?
How would the colour blue sound? What would it smell like? Does a classical guitar tune taste different to a burst of jazz trumpet?
Thinking about unusual ways we might interact with our senses unlocks a whole new train of creative thought – and possibilities.
Perhaps your protagonist is cursed (or blessed) with the ability to smell emotions.
Perhaps an intergalactic traveller encounters a race whose perception of touch and sound is entirely at odds with our own experience.
Whether it’s a quirky exercise made to challenge your creativity or a spark that inspires a whole novel, it’s worth taking the time to experiment!
Exercise #27: Write a ‘front page’ novel outline
Outlining a novel can be a tedious process for the free-spirited pantser, but is an integral part of the writing journey, as it allows you to identify key events and characters.
Whether tackling an outline before you get started or writing a synopsis to market to publishers, condensing the plot of an 80,000-plus-word adventure is no mean feat.
To help pinpoint what is important (and have some fun along the way), why not have a crack at telling your story as if it were a front-page news article?
By following the inverted triangle of journalism, you can learn to scratch away the excess meat and really get down to the bones of your story.
Deciding on a nice punchy headline is beneficial, too – after all, a novel needs a compelling logline as well.
Exercise #28: Hero your villain
‘Every villain is a hero in his own mind.’
Or so believes Tom Hiddleston, when discussing his beloved portrayal of Loki in the Marvel movie franchise.
Having an understanding of the villain’s motivations and values is just as important as crafting clearly defined traits in your protagonist.
If you’re having trouble getting your baddie to seem as well-rounded as your hero, why not shift the spotlight for a bit?
Try writing a couple of scenes where the antagonist and their journey are given the hero treatment. Show the reasoning behind their villainous path and provide insight into why they do what they do.
By interacting with your villain the same way as you would your hero, you’ll be able to gain a greater understanding of the character, resulting in a stronger, more authentic villain for your story.
Exercise #29: Make it ugly
If you’re finding your descriptions are getting a bit dull and unoriginal, try shaking things up with a playful spin on perspective.
Stunning vistas, flawless roses and genuine smiles are often considered sights of universal beauty and portrayed by writers accordingly. But what if they weren’t?
Writing conventionally beautiful objects through a lens of disgust is a fun and creative way to get your brain thinking about things a little differently.
You can even take things the other way and make something traditionally unappealing into a thing of beauty.
This activity doesn’t just have to be a short creativity booster; it can also help solidify character traits or themes of a larger project.
Exercise #30: Draw inspiration from the past
World history is one of the most intriguing sources of inspiration the modern writer can draw upon – and it’s not just for writers of historical fiction.
George R. R. Martin, for example, features parallels to a range of historic events and figures throughout his iconic fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Of course, ‘history’ is a vast and non-specific resource to go trawling for ideas, so you need to set some parameters.
Using the year of your birth, the year you reached a notable milestone (i.e. 21st birthday), or even the entire span of your life will provide plenty of creative fodder.
You don’t need to represent your chosen event exactly as it panned out. For example, a millennial writer may choose the once widely-feared Y2K Bug as the cornerstone of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
There are countless choices ahead of you, but opting for little-known or obscure historical happenings will provide a more unique and creative starting point…
And ensure your novel doesn’t get lost in a deluge of COVID pandemic retellings.
Creativity is a well, and sometimes you need to dig a little deeper to get to the source. Fortunately, it never runs completely dry.
Even in times of prolonged drought, there are ways and means to get things moving again.
Whether it’s random writing prompts, strict word counts or timeframes, or some good ol’ out-of-the-box thinking, the most important thing is that you keep those creative juices pumping.
You never know when an innocent little writing prompt could be the start of your first big breakthrough.
What activities have you tried? Do you have a fail-safe exercise you always turn to when you need a creativity boost?
We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!