Tips and Techniques for Training Your Writing Brain

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Writing

Writing is fraught. You worry about your imagination. You worry about your writing ability. You descend into navel gazing. “Is my writing engaging enough? Are my ideas interesting enough to hold a reader’s interest? Does my idea have enough substance to be a poem, short story, novel?” It all starts to spin out of control.

Hold on a minute. Before you can tackle those fears, you have to write. Dorothy Parker once described writing as “the art of applying the ass to the seat.” You’ve got to do the work and do it regularly to build writing stamina. No worries, though. There are techniques and tips to get you started.

Techniques to Train Your Writing Brain

Free writing

Our fear–of making a mistake or sounding silly–robs the blank page of our words. Free writing is an excellent way to exercise your writing muscles.

In free writing, there are few constraints. Write simply and without a thought to grammar, spelling, punctuation, or style. Write whatever comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind, write about the nothingness. After your free-write session, harvest your work for repeating patterns, interesting phrases, or ideas to seed other writing sessions.

The DIY MFA article, Stay Motivated: 8 Writing Tools To Keep Words Flowing, lists eight websites to warm up your free writing muscles. A number of them, like Written? Kitten!, Written? Bacon! and 750 Words, offer you rewards (pictures of kittens, bacon, or badges, respectively) for consistent writing.

Timed writing

A variant on free writing, timed writing gives you a finite boundary to how long you’re going to be tortured, i.e. write. Start small. Give yourself a minute, five minutes to write. Don’t put restrictions on what it has to be. Perfection is a fantasy. None of us are whole and perfect, much less our writing.

Writing groups

A writing group also helps you flex writing muscles. Formal groups offer structured opportunities to develop craft by introducing new techniques and forms. They often host write-ins, where you can write alone together with other writers. You can find formal writing groups through your local library, college, or writing association.

If joining a formal group scares you, start your own writing group. Your friends, writing acquaintances, and you can band together to improve your writing skills. If it’s difficult to meet in person regularly, try a group call, video or chat conferencing to get your group together and writing. There are a number of free apps or websites which make teleconferencing doable.

Two great DIY MFA articles, Writing Groups: How to Talk to Other Writers and Writing Groups: Backyard v. Inbox, explain how both existing and DIY writing groups help writers. Another DIY MFA article, A Writers Group Tale: From Ashes to Success Through Trial and Error, gives you a look at how to bring new life to a waning writing group.

Writing Igniters to Help You Start

If you find free writing a little too unstructured to spark your writing regimen, try the following ideas to get started. Or use DIY MFA’s Writer Igniter for an endless supply of writing prompts.

Dreams

Use your dreams. Rework your most vivid ones into poems. Or if poetry is not your favorite writing form, think flash fiction/nonfiction and write it as stream-of-consciousness. Set a timer for 10 minutes and dive in.

After some time has gone by–say a day, a week– write it in another form. Put it into constraints. A new perspective breeds new ideas. If you wrote your piece as formless stream-of-consciousness, try reducing it down to poetry. Use one of three specific poetic forms–free verse, pantoum, or prose–to get started.  They are closest to everyday speech but impose enough constraint to challenge without overwhelming you.

If you began with poetry, why not write it next in short story format? Work to enlarge the piece–with corresponding detail and atmosphere–in each written iteration. Clean up grammar and spelling when you move to each new format.

Nonfiction

When you don’t know where to start writing, begin with nonfiction. Use today’s (or yesterday’s) events as story fodder. Write the event as precisely as you can, making sure not to leave out any detail.  Make sure your writing has all the rudiments of a complete story–a beginning, middle, and end.

Fanfiction and family tales

We read books, see movies, and imagine how it should’ve unfolded. Try your hand at fanfiction. Create one-page scenarios with your favorite movie, TV, or book characters and settings.

Family tales lend themselves to constructing what-if alternates. What if your impatient great-grandmother had stayed for the town meeting in that Viennese square in 1939? Would she have disappeared like half of her neighbors did? We all have apocryphal family memories. They offer another opportunity to hone your writing physique.

Take something that already has a story arc–beginning, middle, end–and rework the ending. You get to delve into imagination without having the full weight of creation to hamper your writing. Retell the whole story but change the names, setting, or ending.

The Renaissance Secret?

“The desire to write grows with writing.” Renaissance scholar Erasmus could easily have substituted stamina for the word desire. There is no shortcut to training your writing muscles but short forms–poems, flash fiction, short stories–help ease your writing fears.


Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in VayavyaGravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

  • Terri Frank

    Another great article, Brenda. I didn’t know about the websites that reward you for consistent writing. Must try!

    • Thanks, Terri! I usually pooh-pooh the idea of rewards but I discovered that a really cool sticker did it for me. It resurrected my inner 1st grader. 😀

  • Michelle Chalkey

    Great article – I love free writing and am really seeing the value in timed writing. I like the FocusBooster app, you can set a timer for how long you want to write for then another time for how long you want your break to be. 🙂

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