A great way to improve your writing: Warm-up exercises!
There are many parallels between writing and exercise.
With both, it can be challenging to get started. We’ll swear tomorrow’s the day we get going, we’ll do it every day for at least an hour, and we imagine grand results in record time… only to quit after a day or so. We worry we’ll look foolish next to the “experts” out there. It can be hard to find a routine that works for us, especially with the constant demands from work, family, and friends on our time. We hit plateaus, and physical or mental obstacles can set us back or derail us.
It’s no wonder many people who have always wanted to try writing (or exercise) shy away or give up when their first draft (or workout) is less than stellar. (Hint: almost all first drafts are less than stellar!)
In teaching writing, I’ve found one mistake new writers make is diving into composing a piece without doing any pre-writing work. This is the equivalent of setting out to sprint a mile without warming up. Your muscles are cold, your blood flow is slow, and you’re bound to get hurt or, at the very least, you won’t set your best time.
Think of these warm-up exercises as getting the brain ready for the real work by clearing the creative passageways of any junk floating around. Sometimes the “junk” might actually be precious gems that can be used in finished pieces, and sometimes the junk is just junk. And that’s okay. By getting it out of your system, you have warmed up your brain and can focus on the next thing. Working through warm-up exercises is also a great way to beat writer’s block.
Here is one quick warm-up routine I sometimes use. You should spend no more than 15 minutes total on the group of exercises – in other words, write and write fast. The trick is to not think before you write. Just write. Let whatever comes to mind come out on the page without worrying about whether or not it’s good or makes sense. No judgments, just the pen moving over paper.
Ready? Let’s go…
Poetry Warm-up Routine #5
This warm-up routine is a series of warm-up exercises designed to be done together to generate connections in the brain and get your creative fires ignited!
- A timer or clock
- A pen/pencil and paper (do warm-up exercises by hand!)
- A space to work in
- Spend two minutes writing lines that begin with “I wish…” and keep going until the timer sounds. Write the lines as a list going down the page.
- Spend two minutes writing lines that begin with “Once…” and keep going until the timer sounds. Write the lines as a list going down the page.
- This two-minute warm up is split: Spend one minute writing lines that begin with “Now…” then spend one minute writing lines that begin with “I remember…” Write the lines as a combined list going down the page.
- Spend two minutes writing a list of lies.
- Spend no more than six minutes total!
– For the final warm up, fold your paper in half to create two columns.
– Next, write a list of five concrete nouns in the right column (30 seconds). (Concrete nouns are nouns that are tangible. To figure out if the noun is concrete, do what I call the “Drop Test.” Ask yourself, could this noun be dropped on my foot? For something like a mug, the answer is yes. For something like love, the answer is no.)
– Then, write a list of five verbs or adjectives ending in -ing (e.g., biting, singing, dashing) in the left column (30 seconds).
– Now randomly draw a line from each noun to one -ing word. When you’re done, you should have five word pairs.
– Finally, write a sentence for each pair. Do not spend more than one minute on each sentence! The sentences do not have to be related, though if you’re looking for an extra challenge you can layer this in.
To help you see what the result of these warm-up exercises look like, here are some excerpts from the last time I used this warm-up routine. Remember – these are warm-up exercises, not polished pieces of writing!
ONE – “I wish…”
- I wish I could function on four hours of sleep every night.
- I wish guns had no place in our world.
- I wish it were easier to find size 10 ballroom shoes.
- I wish I could answer the question “Why?”
- I wish my children never had to face loss.
- I wish I could fall asleep each night watching stars streak across the inky sky.
TWO – “Once…”
- Once I believed unicorns and dragons were real and leprechauns lived at the end of rainbows.
- Once I found five dollars at the bottom of a river.
- Once I laughed until I couldn’t breathe and the black spots burst on the backs of my eyelids.
- Once I believed love was enough.
- Once I dropped a pink ribbon into a pot of soup.
- Once I wanted to be a firetruck with a tall ladder and loud bell.
- Once I was able to run for miles and miles.
THREE – “Now…” followed by “I remember…”
- Now she pays for groceries with borrowed pennies.
- Now I wipe away their tears with my apron strings.
- Now I know the joy of giving in at the right time.
- Now I know the only thing at the end of a rainbow is wet grass.
- I remember the weakness of small people in a large crowd.
- I remember the slice of a knife through my finger.
- I remember the taste of being five and the warm rain as it fell on the field.
- I remember the banter of the geese on the pond in the early hours of November.
FOUR – “Lies”
- I never to go bed angry.
- My patience flows from a bottomless well.
- I’ve never regretted a decision or action.
- I love my name.
- I never struggle to find words.
FIVE – “Concrete Nouns & Descriptive Words”
- cutting eraser – My sketch disappeared without hesitation under the cutting eraser.
- biting bed skirt – The scratchy fabric burned the tops of her sensitive feet like a biting bed skirt.
- longing pencils – The blank page called liked a siren to the longing pencils sitting idly in the dusty cup at the edge of the desk.
- searing wedding band – Her entrapment after his betrayal was like a searing wedding band melding flesh to bone.
- enveloping coffee – I closed my eyes and allowed my senses to be overwhelmed by the enveloping coffee.