Improve Your Writing With A Simple Exercise

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.
–Isaac Asimov

The most important skill a blogger can have is an ability to write. Sounds obvious I know, but the best way you can improve your blog is to improve your writing. If you think about your favorite blogs they are likely written well and have a unique voice guiding them. Here’s a simple exercise you can use to improve your own writing and help take your blog to the next level.

Brian Clark recently posted 10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer. Brian’s 10 steps were:

  1. Write
  2. Write more.
  3. Write even more.
  4. Write even more than that.
  5. Write when you don’t want to.
  6. Write when you do.
  7. Write when you have something to say.
  8. Write when you don’t.
  9. Write every day.
  10. Keep writing.

The point is clear that to be a better writer you need to write.

The Practice Of Spontaneous Writing

Anyone who’s ever written knows it’s sometimes the most difficult thing in the world to do. You see a clean white sheet of paper (or a blank document on your monitor) and have no idea where to start. The more you look at the blankness the harder it seems to find something to fill it up. One exercise I’ve found very helpful in getting past the blank page (or screen) is spontaneous writing.

Spontaneous writing works best with pen and paper. You sit down and just start writing. Write about anything you want. You’re never going to show your spontaneous writing to anyone and you may never read it yourself. Tell yourself you’re going to keep writing until 15 minutes have gone by or until you’ve filled 3 pages with ink. And whatever you do, don’t lift your pen off the paper or stop it from writing. Keep the pen moving and the words flowing.

For me it worked best first thing in the morning. Wake up, grab your notebook and pen, and start the day with 15 minutes writing as fast as you can. It doesn’t have to be morning, though. You can do spontaneous writing at any time you want. However the exercise will be most effective if you choose a specific time of day and stick to it every day. If it’s 3:00 then at 3:00 Sunday through Friday grab your pen and write.

Remember there’s no pressure. No one including you is going to read what you write in this exercise. You can read it if you want, but the point isn’t what you write, it’s that you write. You don’t have to be remarkable while practicing, though the more you practice the more remarkable you’ll find your writing becomes.

I learned this exercise from a few different sources, but I’ll give you the rules from Natalie Goldberg since she’s the one who stands out most in my mind for having taught the practice to me. I believe she calls the exercise automatic writing instead of spontaneous writing and these rules are from her second book, Wild Mind.

  1. Keep your hand moving – Once you start writing don’t stop until the time is up
  2. Lose control – You’re free to write whatever you want
  3. Be specific – Not car, but Volkswagen, not dog, but golden retriever
  4. Don’t think – Write the first thing that comes to mind and keep going without thinking about what comes next
  5. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, and grammar
  6. You are free to write the worst junk in the world – Remember no one is ever going to read this stuff
  7. Go for the jugular – When you hit upon something that’s scary to put down on paper keep going. That’s where your best writing will come from

Spontaneous writing might not come easy at first, but it will get easier the more you practice. I can remember one sitting where I wrote non-stop for about two hours and filled up 45 pages without ever stopping. Even after I let go of my pen the muscles in my fingers were still trying to hold it and my hand kept moving for a few more minutes as though it were still writing.

At first do your best to follow the above 7 rules and don’t worry if you don’t get them. You might find it difficult to keep writing for the full 15 minutes without pausing, but everyday you’ll find it a little easier and you’ll find you’ve gone another minute or two without stopping. If all you can do at first is 5 minutes then write for 5 minutes. Build up to the full 15 and beyond.

If you have trouble starting the exercise you can start with a question. Make your first word who, what, when, where, why, or how and it will often spark more. You can write about your day as if you were writing a journal. Another trick I came across with this exercise was to write down a list of sentence starters and each day when you sit down to practice grab one of those sentence starters and go with it.

A few things will happen if you keep up with your daily spontaneous writing. The blank page will look less scary since you’ll be proving to yourself every day that you can fill it up. And you will become a better writer. The best way to improve your writing is to write. Spontaneous writing allows you to practice the art of writing without the pressure of having to write well.

You fail only if you stop writing.
–Ray Bradbury

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  1. Excellent tips. I remember having to do this for my writing classes when I was freshman in college. I forgot how much it helped my writing. So my plan is to start doing this tomorrow morning.

    On a different note, I am glad you linked to your remarkable blog from this post. I had not read that previous post before and was very glad to have discovered it. I know many people advice to link internally for SEO purposes but I think pointing readers to other good posts is even a better reason to do so.

  2. I don’t do this as much as I should anymore, but you may have inspired me to start doing spontaneous writing more frequently. I think the advice you give here about how to be a better writer is spot on. Writing is like anything else, if you want to be good at it, you have to put in the necessary practice time.

  3. We did this in high school back in the 90’s, it was called freewrite. Just write for 5 minutes without stopping. It can be “I have nothing to write about.” over and over as long as you did not stop.

    The idea was eventually you would get bored of writing “I have nothing to write about.” over and over and start writing about something else.

  4. Khalid I’m glad I could help you find that other post. Interlinking can help other posts seo wise as even internal links do give a minor benefit, but I agree the real value is in pointing people to posts they may have missed or that they might be interested in. I always try to link to a few older posts in every new post.

    Kristine I don’t do it as much as I should anymore either. Years ago I was very good about practicing this exercise, but now it’s only from time to time. Maybe inspiring you to get back into it will get me back into it. I do practice writing though outside of this blog. Even in emails to friends I try to make them more than a quick hello.

    Mark, freewriting, thank you. I was trying to think of that term yesterday when writing this post and I couldn’t recall it. I went with spontaneous writing instead. I’m pretty sure the practice goes under a few names, but freewriting was what it was called when I first heard about it.

    I think I wrote a few of those “I have nothing to write about” sessions at first, but it doesn’t take long till you start writing something more.

  5. Thanks Michael. I think I’ve ended up with more of the what on earth was I thinking stuff while practicing, but I have come up with a few good ideas that I was able to turn into something else.

  6. You are going to turn me into a better writer yet! In fact, I am going to turn those tips into a poster and hang them next to my desk. Really good ideas! Thank you!

    • Thanks Julia. Good to know something I said was helpful. I turn to spontaneous writing all the time. I keep a journal, which I don’t write in every day, but do maintain. When writing in it, I don’t try to edit myself at all. I just write and let whatever wants to come out, come out.

      No one ever reads it and I rarely go back to read it again, but the act of writing spontaneously helps with anything else I write. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

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