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Writing Exercises

I am a veteran teacher of writing from university level to little kids. I offer these writing exercises in the spirit of the Internet as a place for (as well as commerce and publicity!) a community of sharing and exchange.

I call them "exercises" rather than "prompts" or "lessons" because I think of them as ways to strengthen the writing muscles that you already have and as ways to expand your range of techniques. The exercises are free, but if you want to give something back, please go to the main page of my website or take a look at my books or read some of my online fiction.

I also teach occasional private online classes as well as public classes at New York University's School of Professional Studies. Finally, I have a free newsletter about reading and writing that you can get by filling out the form below


A Journal of Practical Writing: Tips from Writers
More Writing Tips
Some Hints on Structuring a Murder Mystery Novel
Point-of-View Characters Whose Gender Is Not Yours
A Late Novel Revising Technique
Go Directly to Current Exercise
Word Usage, Grammar, and Some Pet Peeves
Three Good Places to Learn About Grammar: The Grammarist;
Grammar Girl;The Center for Writing Studies


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                                             -- Meredith Sue Willis


Current Exercise



A character in your story is putting on an article of clothing. This could be told directly, or, better, observed by someone else (watching a lover sensuously getting dressed). It might also be the character's own feelings about struggling into a too-tight sweater, or perhaps strapping on equipment for some sport or other contest.

The objective is to make this as sharp and clear to the reader as possible.



More writing exercises below and in archives. How about a few notes on grammar and word usage?

More Writing Exercises:


Exercises 1- 20

Exercises 21- 40

Exercises 41 - 60

Exercises 61-80

Exercises 81-100

Exercises 101 - 120

Exercises 121 - 140

Exercises 141 - 160

Exercises 161 - 180

Exercises 181 - 200

Exercises 201 - 240

Exercises 241 - 260

Exercises 261 - 300

Exercises 301 - 330


Tips for Writers


A Journal of Practical Writing: Tips from Writers




Do What?

(from Susan Lindsey's Savvy Communication LLC)


"When I first moved to Kentucky from the West Coast, I was startled to hear a man say he was wearing a toboggan. I grew up calling the kind of hat he wore a stocking cap. I thought of a toboggan as a sled (which made for an interesting mental image). I was equally baffled by "Do what?" when it was used to mean "Excuse me, I don't understand." Language differs from region to region. Which words do you use? Sofa, couch, davenport, settee Pop, soda, soda pop, Coke Hero, sub, hoagie, grinder, po'boy Bathroom, restroom, toilet, WC, facility Tennis shoes, sneakers, trainers, running shoes

"Savvy writers can put such regional differences in language to good use. Rather than try to use dialect (which can be hard to write, hard to read, and possibly offensive), use word choice, contractions, slang, and regionalisms to show where your characters are from, level of education, place in social hierarchy, and more."


Article from Writers Digest on Underlining Titles Versus Quotation Marks


Hints for Structuring a Murder Mystery Novel


These Hints from various sources, but especial thanks to Susan Spann on Chuck Wendig's blog Terrible Minds.


These don't seem to be to be unbreakable rules so much as a sensible baseline for your creativity:

  • Avoid a lot of backstory
  • Have a death by page 50 (First big scene--discovery of the corpse!)
  • You need several suspects: at least three, maybe four. Consider who might want the victim dead, who had the opportunity/means to kill. Be realistic, but have at least one who isn't obvious.
  • The suspects aren't all necessarily telling the truth, but only one is the killer.
  • Clues: Include (1) Real clues that help the sleuth solve the crime; (2) red herrings or fake clues that point to someone other than the real killer; (3) Most Important clues, the ones that give the important information for solving the crime.
  • Plot points: Sleuth identifies killer about halfway through (and story moves on to proving how and why). But the sleuth turns out to have been wrong at least once. Sleuth has serious problems, falls in a hole. Finally gets back on track.
  • Second big scene: the killer is identified: the sleuth explains motive, what happened, ties up clues as well as exposes killer's identity.
  • A lot of readers like to figure it out just before sleuth does.

Word Study: Nonplussed


I went through a period of looking up a lot of words, especially for their etymology. I loved Indo-European roots, and discoveries like the fact that the words "black" in English and "blanco" in Spanish go way back to the same Indo-European word for lightning or maybe blaze: brilliant white light that leaves things charred black.

I was less interested in usage, which brings up judgements about right and wrong and when change is good and when it is only inevitable.

Recently I was going over a manuscript for a colleague, and came across a passage in which the narrator is on a walking pilgrimage and bares her feet to protect a developing blister with moleskin: "The other pilgrims were nonplussed," she writes. "One nodded sympathetically and one asked to borrow my scissors." These sentences completely nonplussed me. They didn't seem to match. If the other pilgrims were so shocked by her bare feet, why were they calmly asking to borrow the scissors?

Looking up words in the Internet age is far quicker than it used to be, although it has lost some of the comforting ritual that came with dragging down Eric Partridge's Origins or pulling out the magnifying glass for the compact OED. Within seconds, I had Googled "nonplussed," and the first definition was just what I expected, suggesting that my colleague was misusing the word: "surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react."

But wait! There was a second definition, labeled as a "North American" usage. Since my colleague is Canadian, I thought maybe that was going to be the explanation, a Canadian usage. The second definition was "not disconcerted, unperturbed"– pretty much the opposite of how I understood the word. I looked a little further and found a usage note saying that while in standard use "nonplussed" means "surprised and confused," a new use has developed in recent years, meaning "unperturbed." The new use may have arisen from an assumption that "non" is the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. The second "nonplussed" is not (yet) considered part of standard English.

Is this word is in the process of slipping over to its opposite meaning the way many people use "drone?" "Drone" seems well on its way from leaving its meaning of "non worker male bee" to something more like "drudge," possibly because of the boring sameness of the sound denoted by another version of "drone."

In the end, the writer decided to go with "unperturbed" just to make sure her narrative wasn't misread.




Point-of-View Characters Whose Gender Is Not Yours

We had a discussion in my Advanced Novel Writing Class at NYU about the difficulty of capturing a character who is of a different gender from yourself. Writing about people unlike yourself– by race, ethnic group, age, and certainly gender or sexual preference– is always a big challenge, but also of great interest to a creative writer.

One class member spoke of an excellent contemporary novel written by a woman and narrated by a man. The class member said he admired the book but that it was only about 98% believable as a male narrator. That is, of course, pretty darn good. He said that it was hard to put his finger on exactly where the 2% resided, but thought it might be in certain words or phrases that weren't quite– manly enough? Something didn't quite ring true.

Another class member asserted that a male writer who gets it right with male and female point of view characters is George R.R. Martin, the fantasy epic writer whose vast A Song of Ice and Fire series is presently being dramatized on HBO as Game of Thrones. I am an admirer of Martin's work, and indeed I was impressed and inspired by his enormous cast of point of view characters, male and female. Martin does not, however, use first person narratives, but rather close third persons. He also works in relatively short chapters, always moving to a new character.

There are a couple of great advantages here, including that in third person, you don't have to attempt to capture every nuance of the character's thought and experience. I was inspired to use something like Martin's technique in the novel I'm just now finishing. I have six point of view characters, three male and three female. Like Martin's, these are close third persons, and the chapters vary in length but are short enough that I can focus on one moment in time, or only certain memories of each character.

That is to say, I may skip (if I choose) quintessentially male things like a boy's sexual awakenings or being kicked in the genitals or shaving your face– all kinds of activities that I might or might not be able to imagine or do research on. The focus in my novel, as I see it, is not on the entire consciousness and life experience of any one character, but on certain events and on the interplay of the six people and others. Whether my three men are believable men remains to be seen, of course.

I do have a reasonably successful experience writing first person male, and that is two children's novels in the voice of a boy named Marco, The Secret Super Powers of Marco and Marco's Monster. The reason I was comfortable with this is, I believe, first that Marco is prepubescent; second, that I relied heavily on writing and storytelling by children I had worked with in New York City public schools. Third, my own son was just about Marco's age. And finally, again, my interest was on story, on a certain voice I knew. Marco is not an angst-ridden teen-age outsider but a third grader who is telling his adventures to readers in a quasi-formal tone: "When I was about three years old," he begins, "I had a little red cape I wore every day. My mother says I was so cute, she used to keep a picture of me in the album in this cape with my arms stretched out like Superman...."

These notes are just musing about this issue of how to get deep into people unlike you. My advice is to experiment: Try writing a passage about a character very different from you in his or her own voice. You may not keep what you've written in its original form, but you are highly likely to learn something.


A Late Revision Technique


I've been revising a novel that's going to be published early in 2014 by Foreverland Press as an e-book (hard copy to follow). This book is really finished, and was given an excellent editing a while back by my then-agent. Still, this was an opportunity to go over it one more time, and I tried a technique I've advocated but never actually used myself. This revision technique is only for the end stages of writing a big project. The idea is not to get caught up in the momentum of your own story. Simply put, you go over the final chapter, then go over the penultimate chapter, then the one before that. I did Chapter 29, then Chapter 28, then Chapter 27, and so on all the way back to the beginning. When you do this, you tend to be annoyed by anything extraneous– you're less likely to skip over things. I'm a big fan of moving forward fast as you draft, but now I wanted to do the exact opposite: to slow down and find as much as possible of what was wordy or unnecessary. I didn't find a huge amount to cut and correct, but plenty to make me glad I'd done it. One interesting thing I noticed was that the end of the novel seemed richer and stronger than the beginning, which I had, in fact, polished a lot more. This suggests to me that my novel got better with the accumulation of what had gone before. It's a good layer of revision. For more layers of revision, see my article in The Writer.

Here's something especially for teachers-- a free writing prompt of the month: Prompts
Looking for Poetry Writing Exercises? Writenet at Teachers & Writers  has some good ones originally planned for young people, but they would make great starters for anyone
For writing exercises for children, click here. Teens can use the ones on this page, or look at my page for teens.
Here's a link to a really interesting haiku exercise from Timothy Russell.
And then there is making fun of writing prompts:McSweeney's has a fairly funny take-off called "Thirteen Writing Prompts" by Dan Wienceck
Rita Marie Keller has a blog called Buried Treasures that is full of writing prompts and links to more writing prompts. " Essays and writing exercises to help you uncover the great writing ideas you already have."



Exercise # 331


In a poem, William Carlos Williams once listed some ordinary things, then wrote:

These things
Astonish me beyond words

Write a scene in your novel, or start a poem or a story with something astonishing beyond words. Perhaps it is something your character observes, or merely the naming of an amazing natural phenomenon.


(See the whole poem at Pastoral by William Carlos Williams)



Exercise # 332

Think of two people you have seen recently at the supermarket or in the park or on the street. Or, if you are working o a story or novel, take two of your characters, just not the main characters.

Imagine these people engaged in a conversation on some quotidian subject: the weather, the baseball scores, whatever. Write down only the words they say. Do it rapidly.

Then go back and add everything else: a setting, gestures, how they said things, tones, thoughts, descriptions of their clothes, etc.

Finally, make it longer. Where does it go?



Here are several list prompts that, according to developer Rose Blessing, are especially useful in stimulating poetry.



Exercise # 333


--Things you've copied
--Items that beep
--Poets' problems
--Things at a train station
--Things to leave alone
--Favorite tools
--Reasons to buy flowers
--Childhood treasures
--Things out of reach
--Ways to enjoy the outdoors
Selected prompts used in 2015 and 2016 at The Write Group's Saturday morning Free Write sessions at Montclair Public Library in Montclair, New Jersey.

Shared by Rose Blessing, Write Group member

To learn more about The Write Group, visit their Facebook page or website.





Exercise # 334


More prompts from the from The Write Group's Saturday morning Free Write sessions at Montclair Public Library in Montclair, New Jersey. There were shared by Rose Blessing. To learn more about The Write Group, visit their Facebook page or website.


--Two steps forward, one step back
--Focus was everything.
--The fifth child startled us.
--Don't underestimate me.
--My regular wardrobe is . . .
--He had begun living in his imagination.
--I am an adult.
--It tasted like blue.
--I'm done with the doctor.
--Things can be replaced. People can't.
-- In this moment, on this planet, in this galaxy
--They hadn't a clue.
--BRB (be right back)
--Focus is everything.
--The dog's true personality revealed itself in the dog park.
--I still care, despite it all.
--Winter weather advisory
--That in-between place
--Now that he's dead...
--Loose and light
--A little respect, please
--Thus much I know
--Sound byte
--The monsters screamed.
--I long to be absolutist.
--Copy the boss.
--Facing the mob
--I'm in a dream.
--Yesterday's news
--You're the star.
--It will happen shortly.
--Notes of peach
--I know the place well.




Exercise # 335



What do you fear? Think of a few things, realistic or unlikely-- Developing a medical condition a close relative has or had? Mosquitoes? Black holes in space?

First write briefly about the thing that frightens you-- when it frightens you, how it frightens you, and where you think the fear comes from.

Second, try a reversal: write an ode to the thing you fear: "To a Black Hole in Space," etc.

Finally, try a short story that begins with a character with a very different fear from yours: "Marshan had always been deathly afraid of vultures, even seen from a great distance floating on columns of air..."




Exercise # 336

It's really really hot this week. Imagine yourself or some random person you have seen in a public place or a character in something you've written getting hotter and hotter.

What does it feel like? What is the evidence of heat? Sweat is obvious, feet swelling against sandals is a little less obvious. What else?

What are the circumstances? A stopped subway car and the AC goes off? A sports event out-of-doors?

You can do this as simple description, or imagine it driving the person to take action: something creative to cool off? Something violent out of misery?



Exercise # 337


I was just reminded by a grown woman of a writing exercise I once gave her class when she was in fifth grade. It is exactly the kind of assignment I always hated most--the sort of fake "Let's get wild and imagine something crazy!"

My assignment was, "Imagine you are a roll of Tums."

Embarrassing, yes?

Try this challenge: take that roll of Tums and put it into a bit of memoir writing or a poem or a story. Or try using it to start something.

Help redeem this writing teacher!




Exercise # 338


Write something with a wolf in it. Maybe it is actually about a wolf, or maybe a wolf appears in a dream or when characters visit a zoo. This can be especially useful as a jumpstart on a blocked project. Have your main character see, or imagine, or hear, or remember a wolf or something about a wolf.




Exercise # 339


 It's National Novel Writing Month--a free project that gives people support in writing all through November, trying to draft, or at least get a lot of words written on, a novel. Learn about it here.


Try it out, if it appeals to you.


Or, try this: Write the opening lines of three novels you always wanted to write.

Read over them, and pick one.

Write on!




Exercise # 340

Write either a fictional beginning or a piece of memoir about a historical or current event of deep darkness, unease, and danger.

Writing about something from the past may help give perspective on current fears and dangers. Imagine you or a character are in Europe in 1939. Write something set in times when many Americans were enslaved.



Exercise # 341

Write about something stolen--a theft. This can be metaphorical ("I remember the moment when my heart was stolen...") or something small (a child takes an unauthorized cookie) or a major crime. Use it to start a piece or or slip the theft into an ongoing project.



Exercise # 342

Holidays have so much importance in our cultural and personal lives that they often include disappointment and bad feelings.

Write about a contrast: a holiday when nothing is going right--but somehow, the feeling comes through. Or, vice versa, a holiday with high expectations and a crash. Loneliness in the midst of a crowd of family? Not getting the gift we wanted--but getting something much, much better?



Exercise # 343

Here is the name of a new anthology of stories that I really like (I have a story in it). Use it as a prompt for a piece of writing: Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods. Try it as the title of a poem, or turn it into an opening sentence ("There were eyes glowing at the edge of the woods...") Or don't use the phrase at all, just contemplate it and see where it takes you.




Exercise # 344


Take a piece of writing you have laid aside but find youself still interested in, and try this simple series of exericises:

1.Write what happened “One month later….”

2.Write what happened “One year later….”

3.Write what happened “Ten years later….



Exercise # 345

Think of, and describe, a real mirror you have seen or owned or lived with. After describing it, write what it has reflected.  Here is a poem-version of this exercise by Gail Mazur.



Exercise # 346

30 Writing Prompts for National
Poetry Month!

Try one a day and see what you end up with! Some of these have a game-like quality, but don't be put off: playfulness is a good thing.





Exercise # 347


Write about yourself (memoir) or your character (fiction) three times. Choose three moments widely separated in time in your or your character's life. Try to include description, dialogue, and inner consciousness to capture three versions of the person. Look for differences: hair color? body conformation? who the person loves? what is capturing the person's attention at this period in her or his life? Don't do a summary or character sketch: be concrete.






Exercise # 348




Boring Bowls: A Challenge.

Write something interesting (or funny or painful or true or surreal) that begins with three boring blue Melmac bowls. If you are working on a novel, put them in your novel and see where they take you.

Sometimes the best way to get ideas is to begin by describing the object.





Exercise # 349


Write brief summaries of 3 important relationships in your life: make them all of one type (3 love relationships; 3 opponents in a sport; 3 people who betrayed you; 3 teachers). Make them as long or as short as you want, but concentrate on how they are different--and alike.






Exercise # 350


They always say, "Write about something you know."

Pick some mundane task (or something from your day job) that you are particularly good at, but that isn't part of your writing life.

Maybe it's putting up hooks on plasterboard. Maybe it's making rice or mixing a perfect martini. It might be a technique you use in teaching to get shy students to participate. Or a way you use that always brings people closer to making a deal.

Be sure it's something that isn't an official "art."

Write a "how to" for the thing as clearly and precisely as you can. Give instructions. Even number them.

Then when you've written it, write a scene for a novel or draft a short story that centers on this technique or skill or activity.




Exercise # 351


These are the final lines of a famous novel. Do you recognize them? They are, finally, about the value of art to the artist, to the universe, without respect to fame and fortune.

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was–her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blue, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? She asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

Click here to see what novel, and then write your own manifesto about why you write.

After you have written about why you write, write a passage about another artist: a painter, a folk artist, dancer, a singer. It can be an imaginative recreation of the mind of a famous person, or a created character. Have this person having an insight about their own work.

Where might this lead?


I did a story like this called "Family Knots" about an invented quilter around the turn of th twentieth century.



Exercise # 352


"Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn't be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you'll begin to find that there's something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected."


(Click here to see who wrote this, and for a link to the whole article.)


Do you agree or disagree? And how do you agree or disagree?

I love the idea of a "dance with language," although I don't believe it's the only source of writing, not even of poetry.

Find a phrase in a poem that you particularly love the sound of: "When she moved, she moved more ways than one" or "I must go down to the sea again" or "When lilacs last in dooryard bloomed" or "Mary Mary quite contrary..."

Find one of your own (or feel free to use one of those). Copy it out, and then use it as a prompt for a piece of your own.



Exercise # 353

Turn to some writing project you are engaged in: a memoir, a novel, a short story, a poem. Put a theft in it.

The theft could be an actual burglary, or a figurative theft ("Once again she stole my heart...") of a dream of a theft or a memory of one. Can you remember a time in your own life when you stole something? Did anyone every find out?


Exercise # 354

Write a passage about sexual desire, or an act of sex, using the senses of hearing, touch, smell-- but not the sense of sight.


Exercise # 355

Around the New Year, everyone is thinking about making resolutions. Write a story, anecdote, essay, memoir or poem that begins with someone making a New Year's Resolution, or, alternatively, with a list of resolutions (humor is welcome!)




Exercise # 356
In the Evening
Fenton Johnson

In the evening, love returns,
   Like a wand’rer ’cross the sea;
In the evening, love returns
   With a violet for me;
In the evening, life’s a song,
   And the fields are full of green;
All the stars are golden crowns,
   And the eye of God is keen.


In the evening, sorrow dies
   With the setting of the sun;
In the evening, joy begins,
   When the course of mirth is done;
In the evening, kisses sweet
   Droop upon the passion vine;
In the evening comes your voice:
   “I am yours, and you are mine.”



This poem is very old fashioned. it came out in a book published all the way back in 1913. It gave me an idea for an exercise, though.

What is your favorite time of day?

Write about it, either as a poem, perhaps imitating Fenton Johnson's poem, or in prose.

Or, alternatively, write about evening. Do you feel the way Fenton Johnson does about evening? Maybe the opposite?

Parodies can be fun too!


For more about Fenton Johnson, click here.



Exercise # 357

William Blake, poet and visual artist, had an extremely idiosyncratic view of the world--and the afterworld. This painting was called "Heaven." Write a description of your "Heaven" as a poem, paragraph, or story.




To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf



Marilynne Robinson, "Toward Essentials," The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 2017: p. 13.





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