There are writing exercises galore for storytelling, such as story or “first-line” plotting prompts. However, there are only a rare few that focus on the quality of your writing.
It’s the quality of your writing that sells your stories.
So which is the best writing exercise for improving the quality of your writing?
The one used by Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, Somerset Maugham, and Winston Churchill—men known for their great writing.
So which of the many writing exercises did they use?
No, not plagiarism, which is a totally different animal.
As humans, we learn through imitation. Children imitate the letter “a,” rounding it carefully, and then slowly and with careful attention, they practice their new skill by writing a whole row of “a’s.” Children imitate the adults around them as a way to learn what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior.
But we have to choose what we imitate carefully. I mean, how often do you really want to hear a two-year-old tell its playmate “Well, you really fucked up.”
Imitation is how we learn.
How Imitation Works
Let’s look at the simplest imitation possible.
Sentence: He ran.
Imitation: She jumped.
The original sentence was subject + verb, yes? So the imitation should be subject (in this case, a pronoun) + verb, but it can be ANY subject + verb. I could have imitated it by saying “They spoke,” or “it dropped.” As long as I kept the subject as a pronoun and added one verb, it would work.
We’re imitating the STRUCTURE of the sentence, but not the sentence itself. If the structure of a sentence could be copyrighted, there’d be no way to write, because even the most complex structure would be owned by some writer or other. Imitation of structure is not plagiarism.
Let’s look at a harder imitation:
Sentence: Anne Snow’s slim hands gently rocked her brandy glass. (~ A Murder of Quality, by Le Carre)
Imitation: Jim Dandy’s huge feet clumsily kicked his shoddy football.
When you come across a passage that impresses you, write it down in a notebook. (More on this in a moment.) When you’re ready to imitate it, take out a legal pad or paper — yes, you need to handwrite this exercise — and do the following:
- Write the sentence on the paper. (I triple and quadruple-space the passage, so there’s room in between lines for me to write my imitation.)
- Underline subjects; circle verbs; highlight adjectives.
- Draw arrows when something refers to something else in the passage.
- Then follow the syntax to create your own sentence.
I don’t want to get into a huge parsing of syntax here, other than to point out that you give yourself the best training when your imitation retains the original sentence structure: subject, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, punctuation, etc.
The first few times you do this, it’s awkward. Yes, sometimes very awkward. Just keep at it. It becomes easier, and you’ll notice your writing expanding in unexpected leaps and bounds. Honest!
These exercises are valuable for embedding a strong command of sentence structure in our writing, whether we are handwriting or typing. The more closely we pay attention to beautiful passages as written by others, the greater strides we make in our own writing.
Earlier in this post I mentioned writing beautiful passages into a notebook. Not only do I mark “beautiful passages” as I read (you can tell when I’ve read a book, because it has post-it note flags, sometimes two to a page), but I also copy those passages into my Beautiful Passages Notebook, pictured here:
And here is the inside, one of many, many pages:
I love browsing these pages, especially if some time has passed since I’ve read certain pages. I’m in awe of the beauty of our language. Some writers have such a feel for the music of language, the rhythm and cadence that draws the reader into the world of their stories. I love putting my hands to the page to feel how they did it, and then to see how it fits within what *I* love to write.
What’s not to love about the phrase, “…he sheathed his sword with the sound of a tree cracking under winter ice.” (Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind, pg, 115).
If you wish to see a few more examples of imitations before you begin today’s exercise, you can find a sample of two different imitations HERE (it will open in a new window or tab, so you can more easily return here when you’re ready).
From John Le Carre, A Murder of Quality:
New sounds disturbed the moaning of the storm: the parched creak of a door, the mutter of a crumbling roof, the incessant sigh of wind upon a dying house.
Study the syntax carefully. You have a sentence followed by a colon. After the colon you have three phrases that expand upon the subject “new sounds.” If you look really closely, you’ll also see that each of the three phrases consists of a similar construction: the + adjective + noun + prepositional phrase (the exception being that the second phrase does not have an adjective before “mutter”).
Do this exercise slowly, and I’d suggest you find a place in your work-in-progress that might have a list of three things that you might be able to rewrite using this structure. Post your exercise in the comments—don’t be shy! I’ll be glad to look at, and probably admire, each of your imitations!
Write with JOY,