Writing is a skill set anyone can improve with a bit of dedication, direction, and practice. The trick is figuring out what actions will truly help you become a better writer and which are simply a waste of time.
One of the best strategies great writers use for improvement are writing exercises — guided written activities that develop specific writing-related skills. The key is to choose daily writing exercises that align with your goals.
Writing is a skill made up of several smaller skills. A few that apply to both nonfiction and fiction writers are:
- Idea generation
The best writing exercises focus on helping you improve one or two specific elements at a time. It’s similar to how athletes go to the gym to train certain muscle groups. Impressive performance is the result of targeted practice.
You become great at the big thing (e.g., writing) by becoming gradually better at the small things (e.g., grammar, style, speed, etc.).
We learn how to write well by writing consistently.
Below, you’ll find a list of 8 activities you can try, along with clear directions on how to start them, and short explanations of how each one will help you grow as a writer.
Let’s jump right in.
#1 Transcribe another author’s work
The desire to become a great writer often comes as the result of reading a great piece of writing. It could be a book, letter, speech, or an article.
Two questions generally come to mind for the aspiring writer: How did they do that? and How can I learn to do that too?
One of the best ways to learn from an expert writer is to transcribe their work. There are two ways to approach this exercise.
- Get a copy of the material you want to learn from (e.g., book, article, etc.).
- Choose a section of the material, like a single chapter or a few paragraphs, to focus on.
- Option 1: On a physical notebook or sheet of paper, rewrite the text word-for-word.
- Option 2: On a computer, use a tool like Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Notion to type their content word-for-word.
This practice of transcribing their work will give you a hands-on experience of what their writing feels like. You’ll get an intimate sense of their style, word choice, and organization.
The more you engage in this practice, the more you'll adopt parts of their style as your own. But don't worry about losing your own voice in the process. This exercise will highlight both the good and bad in other writers' styles so that you can pick and choose the elements that make sense for you.
#2 Funnel real reactions into writing
The most difficult part of writing is having something to say. Many writers sit at their stations only to wind up staring at a blank page.
That’s because they haven’t yet understood that creativity is an input-output mechanism. If your input is empty from a lack of reading, conversations, and new experiences – then you’re output will suffer.
However, one way to jumpstart your creative output is by inciting a reaction.
- Find a news story, trending video, or hit song that stirs up a positive or negative emotion in you.
- Set a timer for 10-20 minutes.
- On a piece of paper or computer, begin reacting to the item. Try to write without any breaks until the timer goes off.
When writing out your ideas, feelings, and arguments, remember they don’t need to create a cohesive narrative. The goal is simply to reopen your mind and get the creative words flowing once again.
What you’ll often find is that your reaction writing will generate unrelated ideas you can use for future projects, and you'll leave the exercise feeling unblocked and ready to work on what's next.
#3 Describe an in-person setting
Whether you write nonfiction or fiction, being able to accurately depict people, places, and things will come in handy.
Similar exercises will encourage you to create your own settings and describe what you imagine in your mind’s eye. While this can be helpful to a small degree, it won’t help you capture the true details that bring items to life for readers. To do that, you’ll need in-person exposure.
- Visit a local coffee shop, museum, or similar location with lots of activity.
- Spend a few minutes observing your surroundings. No need to look for anything specific, just see what you end up noticing.
- Next, spend a few minutes writing down the most memorable elements in a bulleted note style. Aim to capture at least a few features for each sense: what do you smell, hear, see, feel, and taste?
- Later that day, write a paragraph describing the setting using the notes you took earlier.
The goal of this exercise is for the paragraph you write to transport you back to that place. A successful description is rarely an exhaustive one. Instead, it picks and chooses the most important parts that a reader needs to know.
For extra practice, show your paragraphs to your friends and family and ask for their reactions. Did it make them feel like they were there? If not, what could be improved?
#4 Try vocabulary builder prompts
There’s a good way and a bad way to use unfamiliar words in your writing.
The not-so-great method is to string together several large, scholarly words in order to impress your readers. Generally, this only serves to confuse them. A better way is to build your vocabulary so that you can occasionally sprinkle in interesting words that more accurately describe the ideas you’re writing about.
Moderation is key. This method keeps your writing accessible while also giving readers something to discover along the way. So, how do you build a useful vocabulary?
- Subscribe to a free service like Merriam-Webster’s word of the day or pick up a book like this vocabulary builder.
- Discover a new word each day.
- Spend a few minutes writing 3-5 practice sentences that include the word. If possible, try to include the word in another piece of writing you do later in the day.
Realistically, you're not going to remember 100% of the words you learn. Instead, the intention is to build your familiarity with uncommon words so that as you develop your writing and editing skills, you’ll become more comfortable reaching for these terms.
#5 Develop a freewriting habit
A lot of thought goes into most writing. There's research, planning, outlining, drafting, and editing. All of these are necessary. But, pushing all of these to the side, at least temporarily, can lead to surprising results.
There's a practice called stream of consciousness writing (aka freewriting), which tasks creators with the challenge of brain dumping their way into a piece of work. A common form of this practice is morning pages, an activity in which a writer fills up three pages as soon as they wake up in the morning, essentially clearing their mind of any mental clutter, so they're free to work on what matters most.
First, here are the steps to follow for a flexible freewriting exercise.
- Open a notebook or locate paper and a writing utensil; this exercise works best when done by hand, rather than digitally.
- Set one of two goals: either to fill up the entire page with words or to write until an alarm sounds (suggested time: 5-10 minutes).
- Begin quickly writing down any words, ideas, and sentences that come to mind. They do not need to be connected or coherent. The goal is to fill the page with whatever comes out.
Second, here is a video that walks you through the more specific practice of morning pages.
Engaging in freewriting is an excellent way to empty your mind to focus on the task at hand while simultaneously improving your speed at getting ideas out of your head and onto the page.
#6 Brainstorm multiple headlines
Just like writing is a skill made up of many smaller skills, any single piece of writing includes a collection of individual parts.
There are introductions, transitions, and conclusions. Different types of sentences aim to accomplish different objectives. Throughout any article, book, or other writing pieces, small changes can drastically change the tone, voice, and purpose.
One way to practice influencing these individual parts is by brainstorming multiple headlines. These can either be for pieces you have already written, plan to write, or for titles you’ve found online.
- Start with a complete title, whether it's one you created or found.
- Experiment with it by changing the words and organization until you have 20-30 different versions. The greater the differences, the more beneficial the exercise will be.
- Review your iterations and look for patterns that you can implement in other parts of your writing.
Headlines are a great tool to work with because they are standalone bits of content that can significantly impact meaning. As you improve at creating a variety of headlines quickly, you'll be able to apply the same skills to other parts of your writing, such as testing multiple introductions or conclusions.
#7 Edit other people’s writing
Finally, one of the most widely practiced and helpful writing exercises is to edit the writing of others.
Editing is a slightly different skill set than writing and requires creators to approach content with a more analytical lens. Instead of getting an article or chapter finished, the purpose is to make the writing better. Better could mean clearer, more concise, or more complete.
In some cases, good editing adds content. In others, it removes. It all depends on the particular project, paragraph, and sentence at hand, which is why it's a skill set every writer would benefit from refining.
- Find an unfinished piece of writing to edit. Online writers groups (like Foster.co) and local meetups are a great way to do this.
- Start by reading the entire piece to understand what it was trying to accomplish.
- Next, add notes that would help the writer reach their goal. It's important not to only suggest how you would do it, but to try and put yourself in the other writer's shoes.
- Afterward, go through the piece again, looking for smaller areas to improve, such as grammatical mistakes and punctuation errors.
- Always positively word your comments. Writing is difficult, and a little kindness goes a long way.
Although you don’t want to edit while you write, because it will slow you down, developing the skill will unconsciously help you construct cleaner first drafts. Furthermore, you’ll get a better sense of how an editor works so that you can work well together and apply their notes more effectively.
The best exercise
Above all else, the best writing exercise is to create consistently.
As long you carve out time regularly to write, you’ll see your skills improve over time. Targeted exercises can help accelerate your growth, but they should never fully replace doing the work that matters most (like writing your book or publishing your newsletter).
The world is waiting for your words, so go get started.