I’ve been trying to figure out why writing exercises bore me. The writer’s group I belong to used to assign them on a regular basis as homework but few people did them. The lack of response made me realize why I find exercises boring. Most don’t seem geared toward teaching writing. They seem more like writing prompts to help someone blocked. Think about it. The most common writing exercises sound like this. Write about an attic. Write about your first friend. Well, personally I don’t learn much from those. I want to improve my craft, not come up with new subjects to write about. That I can do on my own.
A few exercises though, do help. Ones that say, for instance, to take a work in progress and write a portion of it from a different point of view. Those challenge me because it forces me to try something outside my normal safe boundaries. But somehow even that type of exercise doesn’t feel like enough.
I’m not saying this because I think I have nothing to learn about the craft. It’s the opposite. The problem is finding out what works for me. I’m sorry, but the creative writing instructor who told me to write about a peanut didn’t teach me anything.
In contrast, I’ve learned a lot from books like Jessica Morrell’s ‘Between the Lines’. Her section, for example, on prologues, when they work, why they fail, and when they should be used, taught me a lot. And that’s how I learn. Show me why something works or doesn’t, and send me away to play. I learn, too, from having my work edited. If someone suggests looking at how the work changes by flipping the order of a sentence, or by using a more active word, I’ll go away with my pages, play with the words, and learn.
Which doesn’t really sound like an exercise in writing any more than a list of prompts. Exercise is supposed to make us work though so I suppose in the long run what’s important isn’t how you define an exercise in writing but what the end result is for the writer.
So what constitutes exercise in your writing? How do you learn and challenge your ability? How do you make sure you continue to grow as a writer?