5 Ways to Play With Your Words

Maybe you’re a chiseler (a term I first heard used by YARN’s Fiction Editor Diana Renn to describe the kind of writer who chips away at the same project for a long time).  Maybe you’re more of a fickle writer like I am (the kind who flits from project to project, often finishing them and even working on them for years, but who can’t quite imagine chipping away for too long).  No matter what kind of writer you are, we can all benefit from learning how to play with our words; play helps us see our work with fresh eyes and discover new skills.

Also, summer is an ideal time to experiment with your writing—You don’t have any assignments to complete for grades, and your (writing) time is your own!  Here are a few ways to play:

  1. Pick a genre and write a piece that uses its conventions.  If you’re a poet, try a personal essay.  If you only write literary fiction, try fantasy.  The more you veer away from your usual style, the better—it will help you stretch your talents and learn new skills.  You might even want to try a genre you’ve scoffed at before.  It’s a good idea to read a little in your chosen genre first, so you learn some best practices and pick up some craft skills while researching.   I learned a great deal in grad school by putting myself through a one-woman class of my own: Romance Novels 101.
  2. Cut half of your story/poem/novel.  Rewrite.  This was my favorite cold-water-shock assignment to composition and creative writing students alike, and it works for any kind of writing—essays, short stories, poems, and even novels.  Beginning and advanced writers blanched in horror at this assignment, which was graded pass/fail based solely on their willingness to cut half of their work and rewrite it.  Why? They would moan.  They thought their drafts were great—or at least good enough.Maybe you, like them, don’t think of this kind of draconian cutting as “play.”  But, just for fun, ask yourself this: How can I do this differently? Your only task is to come up with something differentnot necessarily better, and certainly not brilliant.  You might consider combining this exercise with #1, above. Pretend you’re a kid in the sandbox, and you can destroy what you make as soon as it’s done.
  3. Write 2 pages from the point of view of a dog, but in the voice of a favorite famous writer. Okay, so I borrowed this from David Lodge, who offers a very similar exercise in his novel, Thinks…  As I say in my book, though, this wacky assignment produced the best writing my fiction workshop students produced all semester, hands down.
  4. John Corey Whaley’s Random Word Challenge.  When YARN approached “5 Under 35” honoree and Michael J. Printz Award winning debut novelist John Corey Whaley for some new writing to publish, he offered us some poetry (!).  Then it came out that the poetry was the result of this super-cool writing exchange he did with another writer friend of his: Send 5-10 random words to a friend and ask them to write a poem, or poems, using several of them.
  5. Pull an abandoned story from your files and add a scene or character; or change the setting; or write it in a different point of view (if it was third person, try first or even second).  In short, select a specific aspect of the story to alter, then do it.  I have to admit, I’ve always been too scared to do this myself.  What if I realize that all those editors who rejected the story were—gasp!—correct?  The story wasn’t yet ready for publication.

But that’s the whole point of this play thing:  It’s low-stakes.  No one needs to see what I’m attempting.  It’s just me, my computer, and the world I’ve created in my head—the things that got me into this whole writing thing to begin with.

Have fun with it!  And if you produce something you really like, I hope you’ll consider polishing it and sending it to YARN!