May 22


Seven days to get writing: a conclusion and a rationale

On this blog, we just finished a week of daily writing exercises. If you tried out all of them, then you have practised a pretty wide range of skills, working on your prose style, your story structure, your dialogue, your scene design. Wow.

I hope you enjoyed the experience.

If you produce a story from any of the prompts, I would love to read it (email me at my name at gmail). If you have different sorts of exercises that you would like to try, or a particular writing difficulty that you’d like me to design an exercise for, let me know.

Readers have asked for this series to continue, and while I can’t manage to keep doing it daily, I am planning more writing “challenges” for future weeks.

To put the days in categories, they went like this:

Day one: sentences

Day two: first paragraphs

Day three: word choice and prose style

Day four: plot outlining

Day five: stealing inspiration from the poets

Day six: dialogue

Day seven: writing a story’s first scene

I like these kinds of exercises a lot. My belief is that they are, if designed and taught in a structured sequence, an excellent way to learn to write fiction. Better, even, than taking a succession of writing workshops.

One problem with workshops, in my opinion, is that there is simply too much feedback to take in. You write an entire short story or novel chapter, hand it to the class and your teacher, and they proceed to critique and advise on one topic after another. And this is a wonderful experience in many ways. I’ve learned a huge amount from taking workshops.

The problem is that, by making an entire story the subject of the class, there is simply too much to discuss. Any decent creative writing teacher, if she really wanted to, could fill a two-hour class simply by discussing your story’s first page, its first paragraph, even.

This principle is easily seen in the other arts. If I wanted to learn to play the guitar, I would get limited benefit from watching, say, an expert guitarist play “Stairway to Heaven.” I simply wouldn’t be able to take in what he or she was doing. And I would learn even slower by sitting in a circle with other neophytes, playing “Stairway” on someone’s ipod, with each of us attempting to play along by instinct. The resulting cacophony might make a funny video, but it would not be music.

In reality, were I to try to learn the guitar, I would expect my teacher to break down “playing the guitar” into easily digestible steps, and to teach them to me in sequence. Here’s how to hold the instrument. Here’s how to play a chord. Here’s an easy song to try out.

Yet in fiction writing, many of us seem to consider such an approach shameful and insulting, or excessively teacher-centric, or ruinously formulaic. We students insist on attempting to play “Stairway to Heaven” in every single creative writing class we take.

I’m still not completely sure why.

Daniel Wallace


against workshops, dialogue, plot, sentence craft, writing exercise

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  • Thanks for the seven days. I had a lot of fun. And you’re so right about workshops. Too much, too quickly. For me, writing is very personal, and to do it in the workshop format has limited value. I prefer working away on my own, and getting feedback when I am ready for it.

  • You’re right about workshops, Daniel. Because of the amount of students in a workshop, I never felt there was ever enough time to dedicate to each story. It usually amounted to “I liked this, I liked that, maybe try this and that.” It’s great if you want initial feedback and critique, but I never felt I actually learned anything other than to try and make my story work better when I want to also be a better writer.

    I wish I was able to complete the last few exercises on the days they were assigned. This was a great series of posts!

  • Why is your blog named ”the incompetent writer”? What does make someone a writer in your opinion? Is it a matter of talent? In my teen years i had turned obligatory literature classes into a warzone, because the teachers were extremely narrow minded. I wonder if your blog can help someone like me.

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