Two exercises to help you with your writing life

I love books on writing. I have many, many books on the subject, but I continue to buy more because, well – I simply can’t resist them. Just as it’s more relaxing to watch people cook and do gardening on the TV, often reading about writing is so much nicer than actually doing it.

to do listOne of the reasons reading books about writing is so much fun is that they often include writing exercises. I LOVE reading about writing exercises even more than I love reading about grammar and sentence structure, despite the fact that I rarely, if ever, voluntarily sit down to do one myself.

I will, however, happily do a writing exercise in a large group setting and enjoy every second of it. I am sure I am not alone in this. The most insanely popular writing workshop we run ANU is the Thesis Bootcamp, an idea we imported from Peta Freestone (formally of the University of Melbourne), which involves a whole weekend of writing together (ANU students note! Our next boot camp is at our beach campus in late June – read the research digest you were emailed at the start of May for details about how to apply).

Many things that seem silly when we are alone feel different when we are in a social setting. For instance I own a Zumba dance game for my Wii console, but I still pay money to do Zumba dance sessions with other people every week. Twerking in my lounge room seems ridiculous, but twerking in a room full of almost strangers is somehow ok.

So it is, strangely, with writing. We are taught that writing should be done in silence, preferably when we are alone. Many of us need that silent space when we are learning to write or writing something really difficult, but you might be surprised how much writing can be done in noisy, distracting settings if you try it. The Shut up and Write! phenomena which has swept the country in the last couple of years (which I am proud to have a hand in popularising) is testament to the strange affinity between a crowded cafe and good productivity (and if you can’t get into a cafe you can always fake it with the Coffitivity app, which will recreate the ambience via your computer).

I run a couple of different workshops on writing and always include a couple of my favourite exercises. In the feedback people say that is the bit they like most. So I’m sharing two best ones with you. Since it’s more fun to do these exercises with other people, so I’ve included notes on how to do the work in pairs or small groups.

If you are part of a writing group, or a regular shut up and write session, you might like to give some of these a try, just for a change of pace. If you are not already part of a group, perhaps suggesting a morning tea, where you get together and try some of these, might be a good way to get one off the ground. Or you can, of course, give them a try on your own. Exercise is good for all of us.

The metaphor game

I’m indebted to my friend Dr Reem Mahmood for this one. Imagine your writing practice as a car. What kind of car is it? Is it new or old? What is the driving experience like? Is it in good condition or not?


Imagine your thesis as an animal – what kind of animal is it? How does it behave? What is its habitat? Is it a daytime creature or nocturnal? Is it carnivorous, or not?

Take ten minutes to write about this metaphor as much as you can. When you have finished, read it out to your partner, or the rest of the group. Alternatively, you can all summarise the metaphor onto a post it note and stick it to a wall for everyone to look at. You might rearrange the different metaphors into groups and talk about them and what they might represent about our feelings towards work.

Whenever I run this exercise I’m amazed at how inventive people are in their responses. By shifting the problems into another ‘mode’ sometimes they diagnose and articulate issues and problems which have been bothering them for ages. Or they manage to have a good laugh at them. Either is therapeutic.


This classic was first documented by Peter Elbow in his book “Writing without Teachers”. I love this book because it’s really got the flavour of the times, and by that I mean the 1970s with all that flower power and  consciousness raising goodness.

The idea behind freewriting is similar to tantric sex therapy (stay with me here). Many people, Elbow claims, are ‘blocked’ in their ability to write because they have learned to be scared of writing at school, where planning is emphasized above execution. By contrast, freewriting is just taking a pen to paper and letting the words come out, with as little intervention as possible. Robert Boice takes the concept to the next level in his book “Professors as writers: a self help guide to productive writing” and I refer you to this as the definitive text on using it freewriting help you unblock your writing.

I’ve found that free writing works best, ironically, if you direct it carefully. You can do this quite simply by writing a question or statement at the top of the page to use as a guide for your writing. Questions with a ‘how’ at the start work well, for instance: “how do I know that free writing works?” or “how might we get more people to do writing exercises?” In case you haven’t already worked it out, the word ‘how’ is good to use at the start of research questions because it prompts a wide range of responses.

If you are freewriting in a group, write a common ‘how’ question on the board and all write in silence for at least 10 minutes – 25 is even better. Write as quickly as you can, not as well as you can as Howard Becker would say in his book “Writing for Social Scientists” (another excellent read about writing by the way). Challenge yourself by posing questions in the text and then try to answer them. When you reach the end of the allotted time, put a couple of minutes into reading through what you wrote – underline or highlight any sentences, phrases or ideas which you think might be useful.

Freewriting is one exercise I will do on my own, in fact, any time I am stuck in any writing project – be it a blog, article or report. If I feel the urge to look at Facebook or my email (a sure sign I am stuck) I will start freewriting a couple of paragraphs, or for a specified length of time right into the document I am writing. Sometimes I change the font, just in case I am  interrupted and have to come back to it later. I find this an excellent way to generate new ideas and get my flow back. I then spend time cleaning it up and seeing if there is any good stuff I can use. Sometimes I end up deleting all the freewriting I did, but this is rare.

So there you are – two exercises to use in your next writing workshop or group, or if you are the type that doesn’t ming twerking in your own loungeroom, you can use them on your own. I’m wondering – what helps you with your writing? What is it about writing you find most difficult? Is there any exercise or technique you use to ‘unblock’ yourself?

Related posts

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How to use deliberate practice to improve your writing

32 thoughts on “Two exercises to help you with your writing life

  1. Postcards Without Stamps says:

    My idea is to take a photograph – sometimes it’s just easier for me to start writing with some image in mind. I love freewriting too. It’s a great way to access deeper thoughts and feelings.

  2. Aroub says:

    Very interesting tips. I think (free writing) would work best for me. I am an eary beginner in medical writting but from my humble experience I would jam in every single thought of the topic and continue to write accordingly until am literally out of ideas and start going througj what I write !!
    And to second your insights on the *shut up and write* trend, I would write twice as much in a very loud busy coffee shop compared to what I would achieve in a quite office!
    Thanks again! Inspiring!

  3. Ainslee Hooper says:

    I’ve found that my note taking helps me in my writing. I’ll be reading a book/article and when something strikes me, a quote etc, I will note down the page number, then either the exact words or paraphrase. I will then write a paragraph about it. As I have gone on, my writing is getting more emotional, I am arguing with what I’ve read, or agreeing and explaining why. I have currently over 10000 words of notes and my thesis is only 15000 (honours thesis), so it will be interesting to see how I go when putting it all together, but this really does help I find.

  4. Helen Marshall says:

    The poet and academic Robyn Rowland suggested this variant on freewriting to me in the course of hassling me for a journal article over which I was madly procrastinating. Start with one sentence that begins ‘what I’m trying to say is..’ Just finish the sentence and see where it takes you.

    A trick that may help is to end a writing session with a sentence unfinished. That way there is a hook to hang on to when you sit down again

  5. chelawhite says:

    Great advice! I’m working on a manuscript and my proposal, and just joined a “Shut Up and Write” type writing group here in Austin. Hopefully, it will help me stay on track as I find I write better with other people who are writing too!

  6. FrancesB says:

    I have found a few things that are helping me to write. I’m ‘buddy-writiing’ with a friend – we set up regular writing appointments (30-60 minutes), and text each other at the beginning with what we will write about and afterwards about how we went.

    When struggling to get writing flowing I often write in several colours – red for very rough thoughts, blue a bit better, green almost there and black final draft.

    If I am really having trouble working out what am trying to say, I set up a two-column table, populate one colum with one of the little cartoons from clip art asking questions (I like the wise old owl best) , and the other with a cartoon representing me answering them – somehow having the pictures and setting it up as a conversation gets me through the writing block.

    Last way is to have a discussion about the topic, that gets my ideas flowing and I can write something that I can then redraft.

  7. FrancesB says:

    🙂 I can’t think of anything worse that trying to write in a noisy coffee shop, but find natural sounds soothing. There is a fantastic site caled rainymood which plays rain sounds – very soothing to anyone living in a dry environment as I do, and great for writing.

  8. tessbartlett says:

    Freewriting is the key for me. It helps me unlock my voice every time without fail. If you can do freewriting for 20 minutes and then move onto something else you’ll be surprised by what comes out. Ideas start to flow because you’re mind is not getting in the way.

  9. Thomas says:

    I can just agree to freewriting. It even helps to overcome weariness if you just force yourself to write. An often it is stunning what ideas come to light when you just let your mind flow.

    Concerning the ‘metaphor game’ I can recommend to let your dissertation write about you as the author. Usually it is a quite intimate and unique relationship, isn’t it? What kind of relationship does it have with you? How do you treat it?`Does it feel abandoned or well cared? How long does the relationship already last? etc.
    Writing from the viewpoint of your dissertation leads to similar results you mention with your suggestions. And its quite insightful for you as its author when you swap sides.

  10. Carol says:

    great ideas! in the free writing vein, I have found printing out something in double space and then handwriting in the ‘space’ between the text very valuable for just letting go. Also, I use a cork board to pin notes to in order to sort out ideas for a draft of a section.

  11. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    I am now recording my “thoughts” and re-listening to them before I commence in free writing. The metaphor game sounds really interesting and I guess I’ll give it a shot.

    Last week we had the pleasure -at Glasgow uni- to get hands-on experience from you and the freewriting exercise we did during the workshop was very good.

    Recording one’s voice and listening to what u have said AND THEN starting to write definitely takes time but I am finding it very fruitful to me. As u said, it needs a bit of “directing”, I have been trying it for about 2 years now and it gives me a new perspective on how to steer my thoughts once I listen to my own voice. After a while u begin to get some “speed” in this and reap the benefits by plotting yr “audios” into written words more quickly and, more importantly, with a better focus.

    Thank you for the post.

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  13. marijapilley says:

    Reblogged this on Cambridge PhD-ing and commented:
    It is so interested how I also like reading about writing. A lot. I’m reading about writing much, much more than I’m actually writing. It’s actually my favourite and most useful way of procrastination, thinking that at least, I have done something ‘useful’ if there were not letters on the screen….

  14. marijapilley says:

    Do you have idea or tips about combining freewriting with academic writing? I’m perfectly happy with freewriting – psychologically, I know that it is ‘only freewriting’ and I can write really a lot in a short time. Also, it is fun, interesting and useful, it just gets you going and while you’re in the flow, you don’t realise that you have already written a lot.
    But, hmmm…when it comes to academic writing, I’m stuck at the beginning as I ‘am not allowed’ to just put my thoughts on the paper. Thinking about the references i need to cite, the structure or the paragraph, what am I saying, and all of these academic brakes, it is extremely difficult to start writing and just to write…..I would give everything to have answers to that or to combine the two….

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      To use freewriting to generate academic text you need to let go of the idea you will write it ‘properly’ the first time. Write in short bursts, but with purpose. Tell yourself “I’ll just write the stupid version’ then later I will fix it up. Where you get to a reference just put brackets like this: (ref?). Sometimes you find the stupid version is actually pretty great and only needs minor changes. The idea is to let go of the inner critic and then add it back in. Try this book for more explanation:

    • Thomas says:

      And if the ‘stupid version’ is not that great, you can often condense some ideas that are helpful to construct your outline.

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