4 Reasons I Quit Writing Exercises

4 Reasons I Quit Writing Exercises

Creative writing exercises are a staple of workshops and a beloved tool of many authors, but are they really an effective use of time and energy?

Writers are encouraged to keep writing journals where they spend at least fifteen minutes every day writing whatever pops to mind: story ideas, essays, stream-of-consciousness paragraphs, writing-prompt brain stretchers, etc.

My (Non-) Adventure With Writing Exercises

For a brief period in the early days of my writing, I dove into journaling as enthusiastically as anyone. I bought myself a big red notebook, a kit of writing prompts, and even a calligraphy pen and ink for inspiration’s sake. Every day, before sitting down to start my work-in-progress, I would flip open my notebook, run my finger down the list of writing prompts, dip my pen in the ink, and start scribbling.

You know what I gleaned from my labors?

Zip. Zilch. Zero.

Now before I begin my tirade, let me say that just because something wasn’t right for me doesn’t mean it isn’t right for everyone. Maybe journaling is a mine of creative gems for some people. Maybe it is conducive to that sometimes elusive dance with the muse. But maybe it’s also a waste of time.

4 Reasons I No Longer Use Writing Exercises

1. Time Is Precious

I write a novel every three years. If I keep that pace throughout my life and if I live to the ripe old age of eighty, I may be lucky enough to write a whopping total of twenty stories. Time’s a-wasting! So why would I want to spend that precious time scribbling in a journal, instead of working on those twenty stories?

2. Creative Energy Is Precious

Simple question: Would I rather spend my creative energy in a journal that probably will be worth reading to no one but myself—or working on a novel that will be read by many? I feel a deep need to use my creativity responsibly, and frittering it away in a journal isn’t going to get that next novel written and published.

3. Writers Don’t Practice Writing; They Write

You often hear journaling referred to as “practice writing.” But writers either write, or they don’t. “Practice” is what happens during the first (and second and third) drafts. My aunt, a horse trainer, coached me in equestrian maneuvers by saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” The same goes for writing: put your practice to work where perfection counts.

4. Procrastination Poses Under Many Guises

Writing is scary business. Those first few moments when I sit down to start my day’s work are inevitably panic-ridden. My brain starts scrambling for any excuse it can find to delay the moment a little longer. File my nails? Sort my highlighters? Deworm the cat? Writing exercises can easily fall into the same category. It’s much easier to scribble away on exercises that don’t matter, rather than buckling down and working on that tough scene opener. The dangerous thing about procrastination is that once you start down that slippery slope, it’s a hard habit to break.

I’m certainly not opposed to using journals to break through blocks and work out story problems. I do that every day when I scribble out scene ideas in a notebook before actually writing the scene. And writing prompts absolutely have their worth. Ideas are free for the taking everywhere we look, and writing prompts are often a handy source. But I argue that keeping a writing-exercise journal is an ineffective, inefficient, and occasionally even detrimental habit.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you find writing exercises helpful–or not? Why? Tell me in the comments!

4 Reasons I Quit Writing Exercises

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. For exactly the reasons you stated, I don’t do writing prompts or any other types of writing exercises. Thanks for making me feel more okay with it! 🙂

  2. Always nice to have a little affirmation when you’re bucking the system, isn’t it? 😉

  3. I don’t really believe that lack of time is a valid excuse… for instance you can lower the number of minutes you’re spending on this… even down to just say writing a journal entry for 2 minutes or one paragraph max. Granted you wont be getting alot done, but it just may be enough to prime the pump and get the stale water out. OTOH, if the exercises arent helping you anyways, or are detrimental, yeah they got to go… BTW, analysing your writing style in this post, it sounds to me like you’re trying to rationalise it, or you’re feeling guilty about it. If the exercises are really not helping you write or are detrimental, then no other reasoning need be mentioned.

    Love, Happiness, and Respect 🙂

    Dan K

  4. If writing exercises help you, then I agree, by all means make time for them. But, as you said, for me, the time, no matter how small, simply wasn’t worth it. My goal in rationalizing is to help others look at things clearly and figure out the methods that work best for them.

  5. Glad to see I’m not the only one who hates journal exercises! I think the only way they’d be useful is if you tailored them to your novel, especially if it was a scene you’re planning for later, or a free write to get into your characters’ heads or something. But even that’s a bit of a stretch.

  6. I have often considered journaling “experimental” scenes, usually backstory, to help me figure out narration and voice for a new novel. But I’ve just never quite been able to summon the motivation. I guess I’d just rather be writing the book itself!

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  8. Glad it was something you can use!

  9. Your thoughts in this article nail how I have felt about writing exercises. I love to read books and read articles (like many of yours) on how to write better, but I exercise what I’ve learned in the trenches of my books. It just makes sense to me….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To some extent (for me anyway) this is a time conservation thing. If I only have so much time in a day to write, I want to spend it on the writing that counts.

  10. Leja Siv Harju says

    Does this include writing prompts that would be related to the genre and/or themes of your story?

    For example, I’m writing a very “involved” and complex fantasy novel, and all too often – due in part to being the poster child for ADHD, I’m certain – I find myself struggling to kick off, or even come up with, strong scenes. And by strong, I don’t just mean packed with cool-but-functionally-useless fight scenes or “filler” content, like we see in movies *cough* Star Wars prequels *cough*; I’m thinking of those in which we SEE more about the characters through their actions and reactions).

    I’ve found that, sometimes, writing exercises help me to better understand the emotional and psychological aspects of my characters by placing them in situations that they might not have been in… or MIGHT get into, yet I haven’t gotten far enough ahead to see how they come alive in that given situation. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who TELLS too much, without SHOWING. Backstory revelation is soooo difficult for me, especially since I took a page out of my favorite author Robert Jordan’s book and decided to include a prequel detailing the events leading up to my protagonist’s birth, and giving my readers their first full-frontal view of the enemy, as well as the crime he commits (killing my heroine’s birth mother to usurp the throne which will rightfully be hers) that will incite their showdown.

    I tried pantsing for years… and as I aged and reviewed my work, I realized that, while it was great that I had let myself “have at it” with little interference from my now acerbic inner critic, I was breaking a lot of my world’s own “rules” or forgetting where or what each character was specifically doing or supposed to do – in essence, while I had a great flow going, I discovered few nuggets in my sea of verbal diarrhea. Apologies for that mental image, but that’s the best way I could think of to describe it. Now I’m so self-critical that I find it hard to actually WRITE. ANYTHING.

    I bought your book on structure, though, as well as the one on outlining, and know now that if I EVER hope to finish and publish this damned thing that I’ve got to have a better plan.

    Didn’t mean to ramble, just wanted to say that from personal experience CERTAIN writing exercises have actually helped kick my ass back into thinking mode – and, better yet, WRITING mode. Sometimes it’s kinda cool to journal “in character”, too, because I’ve found it helps me form dialogue which doesn’t come off as forced or cheesy. For example, I’ll journal about a certain character’s feelings and thoughts following a significant plot point (ex: a betrayal, a near-death experience, losing a loved one) because it helps me navigate the internal worlds of my important characters better and also provides me with other cool ideas if I’m lucky.

    I have a different question, aside from this matter – if I’m struggling to come up with a more solid idea of what’s going to happen in my story, how many characters to include, and some of the more significant “meat” of my story, which of your books should I read first? “Structuring” or “Outlining”? I have several ideas of how to run with my overall concept but I’m having trouble with sequencing and knowing what to keep or throw out…

    Thank you for this site and for all your hard work.

    • Leja Siv Harju says

      ARGH – in that line about Jordan, I meant “prologue”, not “prequel”.

      *facepalm*

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If there’s a point to any exercise, in the sense that it directly influences an active work-in-progress, then I definitely think it can be helpful. In essence, I suppose you could say my entire outlining method is an exercise, since it’s all about exploring rabbit trails and trying to figure out backstory. So in that respect, yes, exercise away!

      If you were to read only one of my books, I would say read Structuring, since it’s really the one that presents the do-or-die principles of storytelling. But since you’re planning to read both, I suggest starting with Outlining. It presents the more basic, foundational ideas of how to create an outline, while Structuring then talks about how to craft a story to fill that outline.

  11. The thing I agreed most is that to me, it just leads toward procrastination. Writing is a nasty business. Even if there is a burning need in you to sit and work out your creative juices, there is almost always equally burning desire to stop. To flee from that lifestyle, which requires too much self discipline, tension and work.
    So better use you creative high times correctly, rather than writing a writing journal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true. For all that we’re compelled to write, we’re also insanely resisting the compulsion.

  12. Cathy Pelham says

    Writing exercises helped me in a few ways, but not while journaling. I am a member of a mini-writing group wherein we write 15 minutes from a prompt, read our results and comment on the entries. There is real joy in this type of writing, and it points out that a starting idea can be articulated in wildly different ways. This is how I found my voice and the assurance needed to let go of a piece that isn’t working. I use another exercise from Lynda Barry when stuck in a scene. It’s an expanding 360-degree sensory review from a character’s perspective, and it makes the setting come alive in a show-don’t-tell manner. But journaling, Nah.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s interesting, because I quickly get frustrated with the pointlessness (for me) of “inspiration” writing like that, but I find journaling (in which I work through plot problems–so, basically, it’s an extension of outlining) very useful.

  13. Angela Mayfair says

    I find that writing exercises can be useful for me. When I’m stuck on a scene I will often reach for, “Interview your characters 5 years after this scene happened” in order to get un-stuck writing it.

    I’ve noticed that they rarely tell me about the events as a series of actions when I do this. The answer nearly always concentrates on the emotional reaction and beliefs of the character.

    The other time is when I’m trying to figure out how to change the mood and tone – i pull up a blank document and re-write a scene that has everything a scene ought to have but doesn’t feel right, and re write it so the POV character is ecstatic, or furious, or despairing. It’ll give me an idea of how to change the mood of the scene and where the mood changes, and how the mood changes.

    but sit down and write a writing exercise that has nothing to do with my current work, and isn’t designed to become a work? Why would I do that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To me, these aren’t even “writing exercises” so much as “get-my-brain-unstuck-on-this-plot-problem” tools. As such, they get two big thumbs up from me!

  14. Mary Ellen Latela says

    Time! Time is too precious. I have deliberately cut activities which take away from my top priority – writing. (Not counting family connections, laundry, paying bills.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s ultimately what it comes down to for me as well. I’m always trying to streamline my schedule. So much to do in a day, so little time to do it!

  15. As for me, I don’t do writing exercises. I may write a little if I’m feeling inspired but it’s not really about the exercises. Journaling….nope. I just don’t and I can’t make myself do it though so many people have told me I should. It’s just not really in me.

    Writing prompts, I agree, are a different story especially for short story writers. I generally don’t need them as my brain is pretty full already.

    Thanks Katie for the article. You rule.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, story prompts are just plain dangerous for me! The last thing I need is *more* ideas to juggle. :p

  16. This is perfectly timely for me. I have been doing ‘morning pages’ for a couple of years now and wondering if they have been doing me any bit of good. I have to admit that the best use they have is for organization which isn’t the intention. I just gave them up a few weeks ago and now feel much less guilt attached to the decision.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think morning pages are super great–as long they’re something you can actually use. I switched my writing time to first thing in the morning this summer, and it’s made a huge amount of difference. I wouldn’t want to waste that time on writing that didn’t actually matter.

  17. I’m so glad I saw this! Now I don’t feel like a dolt or lazy for not doing any prompts exercise.
    Thank you!

  18. I couldn’t agree with you more. “Practice writing” is too much work. It’s difficult enough to write what we do write, who wants to practice what we do when it doesn’t make anything any easier. I love writing a rough draft then re-write it until it’s right as we can make it. That’s enough practice for anyone!

  19. I agree. I tried to get into writing exercises and always felt they were a waste of time. And I also agree, they CAN be beneficial, but they never really added anything for me. I’d just as soon work on my current novel project.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      They’re kind of one of those “horses for courses” things. They work wonderfully for some people and not for others.

  20. Trevor Veale says

    Just to be a contrarian, I don’t think the early journalings you undertook and now consider a waste of time are without value. After your eighty or more years and twenty or more stories are done, those juvenile scribblings will be gold to your publisher. In addition to the canon of your works, the Collected Letters, Essays (Emails, Blogs?) and Occasional Writings of K M Weiland will be released to the immense delight of your many readers and fans. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, I definitely don’t consider them a waste. Nothing is ever wasted! They served their purpose in their place. I just don’t find them a good use of time any longer. But I am definitely stealing the title The Occasional Writings of K.M. Weiland for future use!

  21. So true! I have never liked any of that. I don’t even enjoy trying to write short stories. I am here to write novels, so I practice writing novels.

    Loved the comment: Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. A teacher of mine used to always say that to me and it’s stuck with me ever since.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Smart. I wrote hundreds of short stories when I was starting up–and I definitely learned a lot from them about writing in general. But at the end of the day writing short stories doesn’t teach you how to write a novel. So if novels are where your focus is, then they’re exactly what you need to be writing.

  22. I have been rather regularly beating myself up over not blogging enough, not doing my Morning Pages, letting one of my Facebook Pages sit and rot. No more! By my calculation (and some decent longevity genes), I likely have time to write 15-22 novels before I leave this realm. Whether I do so is pretty much within my control (at least at this point). Thanks for putting it into perspective, K.M.! I’m off to write another chapter… 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You go! It’s always more worthwhile to beat yourself up for not writing your book than not writing an exercise. 😉

Trackbacks

  1. […] The opposing view is that journaling is a waste of time, a self-absorbed activity that keeps you from doing more productive writing. Writer Cameron Chapman thinks journaling is just another way of procrastinating, and we all know that procrastination is a writer’s worst enemy. Unfortunately, he removed his article about this from his blog, so I can’t link you to it. K. M. Weiland has a similar opinion. Her article is here. […]

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