A Series of Writing Exercises

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Posted by on January 27, 2016

Last Monday, my house hosted a Meta Monday on the subject of how to write about aversive things, particularly self-promotion. This spawned a discussion of how to avoid getting stuck on writing generally, and an interesting exercise. I’ve modified the description of the exercise slightly to refine it, so consider it untested, but I think this is worth doing at least once, especially if you struggle with writer’s block or want to write more.

The goal is to reliably summon and observe the feeling of writing, while definitely unblocked, on a series of subjects that starts out easy to write about and gets successively harder. It involves a facilitator, so it’s best done with a group or with a friend. Several people in the group thought of themselves as not being capable of prose-writing in general, but everyone who tried the exercise succeeded at it.

The facilitator explains the rules of the exercise, then picks a physical object in the room and sets a five-minute timer. For five minutes, everyone writes descriptions of the object. When the timer rounds out, the facilitator asks a question about the object. When we did it, the object was a projector. Everyone’s goal is for their 5-minute description to contain the answer the question. Since no one knows what the question’s going to be, the only way to have a high chance of answering the question is to mention everything. After five minutes were up, I pointed out the vent on the front of the projector, and asked: what’s this? Everyone’s description mentioned it, and everyone was able to write more or less continuously for the whole time without stopping. Success!

In round two of the exercise, everyone picked a project they had worked on. Same rules: after five minutes of writing, someone asks a question about your project – something basic and factual – and your goal is to have written the answer. Most people’s projects were software, so my question was “what programming language was it in”? Some other questions might have been “when did you start?” or “did you work with anyone?” This is very close to resume-writing, but because of the way it was presented, people in the room who were complaining about being stuck procrastinating and unable to do resume-writing were able to do it without any difficulty.

In round three, everyone picked a topic they’re interested in, and wrote about how they relate to that topic. This is similar to what one might write in a cover letter, but, continuing the format of the previous exercises, everyone optimized for answering all the basic factual questions. This one was harder; everyone was able to write something, but not everyone was able to go nonstop for the whole five minutes. Afterwards I asked “when did you first become interested in your topic?” and two-thirds of us had answered.

Several people observed that these exercises felt easy because they weren’t bullshit-y. So, for the fourth and final exercise, we ramped up the challenge level: Pick a villain from Game of Thrones (or some other fiction) and argue why they should rule. Someone else will independently pick a reason, and the goal is to have included that one. This one did, in fact, turn out to be more difficult; everyone managed to write something, but some of our pages were short.

My main takeaway from the exercise was the idea and mental motion of anticipating and trying to preemptively answer easy questions, but to find and answer all of them. This seems to work better for me than trying to answer a particular hard question, or to write without a mental representation of a questioner.

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