Friday, February 27, 2009

Writing Lessons Learned Under Fire by Robert W. Walker

After 30 some ODD years in teaching, I have to cringe when I hear the old nonsense that writing can’t be taught. If that’s the case, I have been a lunatic for a long, long time. But rather than rant at a ranter, let me give out with several writing exercises that have served me and my students over the years well—so well in fact that I have seen whole novels come out of such exercises from struggling students.

After writing a story in first person, sit down and rewrite the entire thing in third person. It’s a great, freeing exercise. Conversely, rewrite a story you did in third person to first!

After writing a story from one point of view, take another entirely different tact by rewriting it from another character’s point of view.

After writing a story in single point of view, rewrite it to multiple point of view. Or visa versa.
Take a multiple viewpoint story and rewrite it to a single POV.

After writing a story set in a safe, comfy place you know only too well, rewrite it to have a far more exotic setting—challenging yourself to create a setting that requires some research and digging.

After writing a story from your own gender’s point of view and voice, rewrite it to the voice and point of view of the opposite gender.

Challenge yourself to write a story from your opposite—whatever that may be. A man, woman, black soldier, female nurse—creating roles/characters far different from yourself.
Write a story from inside the mind of a child.

Write a story from inside the mind of an abused child, or a misunderstood Downs Syndrome patient.

Write a story from inside the mind of someone considered the lowest form of humanity on the street.

Write a story in imitation and admiration of one (or more) of your favorite authors, doing all you can to mirror his/her style and voice. See if you can craft the “lost” pages of Alexander Dumas or Mark Twain or John Steinbeck, Hemmingway or Stephen King.

Any one of these “finger” exercises will make you a better writer overnight, and like any art form or communication skill, writing is learned. I ought to know. I taught myself.

Robert W. Walker
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Morgan Mandel said...

If I hadn't joined Chicago-North RWA and participated in the critiques, I wouldn't have gotten published. Yes, writing can be taught.

Morgan Mandel

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I certainly believe writing can be taught!That's like saying if you can't do long division in your head from day one, you'll never learn math.

Those are excellent exercises - might have to steal a cople for my online writer's group. I really like changing genders. I hear more writers say they can't write from the opposite sex's POV. (I love writing from the male POV.)

Anonymous said...


With all due respect to a gifted writer (you),those exercises sound a bit daunting.

My idea of writing teachers are the really good books, read with an eye out for the authors' techniques, what they are doing, when and why.

Add a couple of good books -- Carolyn Wheat's HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION and Tom Sawyer's FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED -- and the rest is up to the student/author.

But still -- we are all different. What works for one may not work for another.

Carolyn Wheat says in her book:"The great thing about writing is that teachers are everywhere,as close as the nearest book. The other great thing is that there is always something new to learn."

All the best,

Pat Browning
Krill Press 2008

Theresa de Valence said...

Rob, your exercises sound interesting—and fun too—if I had time enough . . . I'm so busy trying to get the one thing done, that I don't have room for side trips. I suppose you might say that the side trip would make the main road shorter . . .

Theresa de Valence
Authors need better software to write

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I've learned so much over the years from various places, writers conferences, books, etc., but I must say I learned the most from one of the members of the writers critique group I joined over 20 years ago. Now I'm the old one passing on what knowledge I've gained.

Marilyn aka F. M. Meredith

Anonymous said...

I think we're all agreed on one thing, that there are many rivers to the ocean -- no one way to teach writing and no one way to learn to write well. One of my exercises presumes that the reader has read widely and has favorite authors from which he learns from examining the prose so closely as to be able to use E.B. White when it is called for, Hemmingway when called for, Stephen King when called for, etc.

As one makes time for such exercises, she or he learns better how to solve a plot point problem, a setting problem, a character problem, a dialogue problem, etc.

I can't stress enough some of the AMAZING results I have gotten from students who have taken on the suggested challenges in these "finger exercises" and in what other art form anywhere is there not "exercises"?