My Five Favorite Writing Exercises to Unlock Creativity
Ask any writer what their biggest daily challenge is. I guarantee you that most answers won’t focus on plot holes and flat characters, but on finding the inspiration and motivation to write. Even as someone who writes both professionally and in my spare time, I still have days where I stare at my computer screen for ages without typing a word, mind drawing a total blank.
It’s particularly discouraging when this happens during a creative writing session. After all, if your own project can’t compel you to write, what can? But in truth, no matter how great you feel about the piece you’re working on, sometimes you just need to reboot.
In my experience, the solution isn’t to break from writing altogether, but to shift your attention to a different exercise that will stimulate your creativity. It might even give you some ideas for your main project!
On that note, here are my five favorite writing exercises for tapping into inspiration when I’m feeling sluggish. And of course, if you need more, you can always turn to Now Write! Fiction — the entire first section is devoted to tackling this very obstacle.
1. Write a “missing” scene from a recent read
Unless you exclusively read hyper-detailed, stream-of-consciousness fiction, you’ve probably read a novel recently with at least a few blank spaces in it.
One of my favorite creative exercises is to construct these “missing” scenes — usually one that’s implied or mentioned in passing, but not shown happening to the characters. These scenes can also be something I invent myself, though they’re more satisfying to write if they fit canonically with the original work.
In any case, this is a fun challenge that’s fantastically low-pressure, as the author has already done the hard work of fleshing out the characters and their world You can simply step into that author’s shoes for a few minutes and see how you like it. Indeed, it can be creatively stimulating to not only write about someone else’s characters, but also to try and mimic their style. This may even inspire you to incorporate new stylistic elements into your own prose (though you obviously don’t want to copy them completely.)
Regarding which book to pick for this exercise, I find that more recent reads are better for me, as the details are still fresh in my mind — but you can also pick a book you’ve read so many times that you’ve committed it to heart. I also prefer this tack with fantasy and speculative fiction over realistic fiction. There’s much more flexibility when the world you’re writing about isn’t tethered too closely to our own.
2. Choose a moment from your day and expand it
Here’s another low-pressure exercise for when you’re feeling stuck: take a sliver of something from real life and turn it into a piece of creative writing.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a full story — though I have had great success starting short stories this way — it can be a few words of scenery description, an interlude about your feelings on a certain subject, vague psychological prognoses about strangers while people-watching, or whatever else you like.
This is an especially fruitful exercise when you only have a small window of time to write. I used to employ it between college classes — sitting on the campus green and pondering a fellow student, a song lyric, the poetry of a slice of pizza. Sometimes I would recap parts of my day in profound detail, creative nonfiction-style; other times, I’d go off in a more fantastical direction.
I would occasionally develop these bits of writing into full-length pieces later on. But the many passages that remained “unfinished” still served a purpose: they kept me looking out for new ideas. For those who are really burnt out on their current project, I would absolutely recommend this exercise — it’s the most enjoyable way I’ve found to refresh your mind without losing too much writing momentum.
3. Pick a prompt that’s outside of your comfort zone
Then again, maybe you write to escape reality.
If that’s the case, a good old-fashioned writing prompt can serve the same catalytic purpose as a moment from your day. However, if you want to push yourself creatively, I’d suggest getting out of your comfort zone and choosing a prompt in a genre or on a topic you wouldn’t normally tackle.
That’s not to say you should pick a prompt that doesn’t interest you at all. But I find that, left unchecked, I gravitate toward the same types of prompts and write the same types of stories over and over. Defying complacency is key, so seek out something that intrigues you in a new and different way. For example, I’ve written very little romance, but last week I started with a “cute-meet” prompt and was quite happy with the resulting piece — not to mention the skills I honed by writing it.
On Reedsy, we have a writing prompts directory you can sort by genre, which may help you be more intrepid in your prompt selection. Or you can work with one of the hundreds of exercises available in the Now Write! books. Whatever prompt you choose for this, don’t feel like you have to write an entire story based on it. As with the previous exercises, it’s more about flexing your creative muscles than committing to a brand-new project.
4. Write in reverse chronological order
If you want to play the game on hard mode, here’s an exercise for you: write a story in reverse chronological order.
It takes more effort than any of the others on this list, and shouldn’t be your first move if you’re already feeling discouraged… but if you’re craving a creative challenge that is likely to yield interesting results, give it a try.
The beauty of this exercise is that it forces you to create a plan before you write. That might sound like a drag to some writers (Pantsers, I’m looking at you,) but it can only make your story stronger structurally. It’s also a great way to practice writing twists, which seem to function particularly well in reverse-chronological stories.
A couple of examples for those who want to see this in action: The Final Day by Edward Gold, a story that won our short fiction contest last year, and the music video for Breezeblocks by Alt-J. (Trigger warning for violence in both of them.)
In these narratives, the audience is led to believe one thing based on where the characters have “ended up,” but the reversed scenes cleverly reveal something else. Try challenging yourself to pull this off in your own piece.
5. Write a blurb about one of your projects
This final exercise circles back to your current project, but bear with me — it’s an incredibly useful tactic for seeing your work in a new light.
For this exercise, you’ll basically come up with your story or book’s elevator pitch: the hook, brief summary, and any other information that might compel readers.
Doing this forces you to evaluate your work through a reader’s eyes, so you can identify your story’s strengths and weaknesses and revise accordingly. For example, if you think you have a strong story on your hands but can’t write a hook to save your life, that’s a sign you should revisit your premise What elements can you add, or subtract, to make it more unique and interesting?
Or, maybe, in writing your blurb, you realize that certain elements of your work are derivative of someone else’s. Now’s your chance to fix it before you’re accused of plagiarism.
Another nice thing about this exercise: if you eventually self-publish on Amazon, or any other platform, you’ll have killed two birds with one stone. The blurb you wrote to gain creative clarity about your work will become the blurb that attracts new readers. So if you try this one, don’t phone it in — it could make a huge difference to your sales down the line.
Of course, perhaps the best part about creative writing exercises is that you can pick and choose what works for you. Writing a blurb might help you develop your novel, but that doesn’t mean you have to publish it.
Similarly, you might not end up completing any of these exercises, but even starting them can help immensely. Remember this as you press on, and good luck!
About Savannah Cordova
Savannah is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, she enjoys reading contemporary authors, writing short stories, and drinking iced coffee.