Two writing exercises

I often get asked how I write, what my routine is, and how I gather, harness, and keep inspiration for use in my writing.

I write using little notes I make throughout the day from the things I observe. When I am out and about I have scraps of paper, my phone, notepads, and covers of books, and I fill them with notes about the things I see and hear.

When I explain this people often feedback that they struggle to break down observations to a bare minimum that you can carry around in their pocket.

While sometimes these notes come to nothing, some of them have helped me birth poems and stories.

The exercises below are from a workshop I delivered to a group of fantastic adults at the Ministry of Stories. They’re not about a particular form of writing, but rather about preparing you to be able to harness the power of public feeling, to be able to create work that is immediate, relevant, forceful, but also timeless in its quality.

We live in a world of increasing chaos, and writers have an opportunity to be a calming and rational voice. Our social media gives us opportunities that writers have never had before to react, to comment, to influence, and to engage with others on a mass scale.

Exercise one

Inspiration comes at us when we’re least expecting it, and often when we’re least prepared. Sometimes you see something that you want to get down on paper as you’re stepping off the tube, heading up the escalator, or standing in the queue to pay for your lunch.

Whatever form of writing you choose to make your own, your ability to observe, condense, and the retell the stories you see and hear could be key to your success.

This free writing exercise is aimed at helping participants quickly and creatively observe, write down their observations, and retell a scenario that you’re presented with. This exercise will encourage participants to quickly understand their surroundings, and produce quick fire observations.

The exercise is also aimed at encouraging inspiration on the go, and the rewriting process will encourage participants to drill down and really observe.

Imagine you come across the story of a lifetime, but you only have the back of a receipt to write it on – and only a felt pen to write it with.


The whole point of this exercise is that you don’t ‘edit’ to shrink your piece, but rather that you rewrite it – cutting the excess, condensing the story, and creating a manageable take away story for yourself.

You don’t have to write in proper sentences, but where possible do. When you reach the last activity in the exercise, you may well wish to use a single phrase, or a collection of prompt words.

5 minutes: Write a 100 word piece of short fiction.
Read it, then screw up the 100 word piece and put it to one side

3 minutes: Rewrite the 100 word piece as a 50 word piece.
Read it, then screw up the 50 word piece and put it to one side

2 minutes: Rewrite the 50 word piece as a 25 word piece.
Read it, then screw up the 25 word piece and put it to one side

30 seconds: Rewrite the 25 word piece as a 6 word piece.

Read your six words and spend 15 minutes writing a piece of short fiction based on those words.

When you finish, read back your initial 100 word piece and see how by breaking down the initial story you have crafted something new and wonderful.

Exercise two

This exercise is designed to support you in taking a scenario and drilling it down so that you can use writing to react to a situation. It is aimed to take you as close as possible to witnessing an event and writing about it as you can go without actually witnessing an event.

  1. Buy or pick up a newspaper, and cut out five stories that you think are interesting
  1. Read the articles
  1. Highlight the following, and write it down on paper:

         Key elements of the news story

         Key character/s within the story

         Setting/location that the news story is set

  1. When you have done this to your five newspaper stories – put the articles in and your notes in a notebook/diary/convenient location.
  1. The next day, take out one of your sets of notes and spend 15-30 minutes writing, using your notes as a guide, and try to retell the story as a piece of short fiction.
  1. At the end of each writing session put your writing away.
  1. Repeat for five days.
  1. On the sixth day, take it all out, match them up, and see how your observations from an initial story in the newspaper were interpreted as a piece of short fiction


Suggested reading accompaniments

Kevin Powers – Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting



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