Writing: Getting started

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A business English student of mine is getting into writing on his Ning and blog (yeah!), and I sent him these exercises to get him started.

This is an exercise in overcoming writers block and allows you to brainstorm. It’s also a great way to avoid translating or focussing too narrowly on issues of what makes “correct” English.
1. Set aside ten minutes. Switch off the phone. Concentrate completely on this task and don’t let anything interrupt you.
2. Write your topic at the top of the page.
3. Now write without stopping anything that comes to mind. Don’t stop writing! If you don’t know what to write next, write “I don’t know what to write next”. Don’t go back and change anything you have written. Just keep on writing.
4. When you’re done think about the experience.
5. If you like, go through and underline some of the things you wrote. Have a glass of water ;), take a break and then do the next exercise:

Building blocks
This is an exercise in collecting all of the aspects of a topic that are interesting to you and making them into building blocks for an essay. It will take at least an hour. You can do the exercise as a list or using individual post-its, whichever appeals most to you.

Part 1: Creating the building blocks
1. Write your topic at the top (list) or on a big post-it
2. Now brainstorm all of the aspects of the topic you find interesting. Give each idea a new line/ post-it
3. Don’t stop brainstorming until you feel all of the things you find interesting are “out of your system” and you start to “run dry”.

Part 2: Designing the building
4. Group the aspects. What belongs together? Does one aspect belong to several groups? Does it need another name in that other context?
5. Give each group a header.
6. Summarize each group in one sentence.

If you want to take a break, now is the time to do it.

Part 3: Building the building
7. Make your sentences the introductory sentences to the same number of paragraphs. Each paragraph will deal with that aspect of your topic.
8. Fill in the paragraph below your introductory sentence.
9. When you’re done with all of the paragraphs, read it. Do the sentences at the end of the paragraphs lead to the next one? If not, write them in.

Take another break.

Part 4: Putting in the finishing touches
10. Read it though. What do you like about the result? What don’t you like? If you were going to do it again, what would you change?

When you’ve done both exercises, think over what you liked/ didn’t like about them.

My experience with these exercises

When I’ve done these exercises with college students, they’ve typically given me the following feedback:

Freewriting was

  • liberating. I was thinking in English and didn’t have time to look for words, or translate, or think about grammar.
  • exhausting and exciting. I have a cramp in my hand.
  • weird. A waste of time. I know what I want to write, I don’t need this.

Building blocks was

  • good because it made sure everything I want in my essay actually goes in
  • chaotic, doing things backwards. I usually have groups first, and then fill in the details
  • helpful for writing a standard essay, the kind I need to be able to write for FCE etc.
  • too constructed and unnaturally rigid. I don’t like the result.
  • very hard. I’m blocked and confused now. I don’t know where one idea ends and the other begins.

I’ll be sending this particular student plenty of more exercises, like describing a picture, sequencing events, talking about something without naming it, talking about an event in the past as though it were happening at this very moment and all sorts of little creative writing exercises (great prompts here to get you started designing tasks) … but these two basic exercises are a way into talking about the writing process as such, looking through opposite ends of the telescope.

Do you do similar exercises? How do you vary them? Which ones do you find most effective? Which ones do your students like best?

PS: I learned the freewriting exercise from Paula Maier, in her manuscript written for the kommUNIkation teacher training curriculum at the LMU München.


2 Responses

  1. Absolutely. Fantastic tips.

    Chris is amazing. All the varied challenges he sets himself, creating game rules that provide the restrictions needed to launch his (and our!) creative energies.

    He actually included the freewriting exercise posted above as part of his seven day improv challenge last summer: http://bitsnbobsshowntell.blogspot.com/2009/09/improv-challenge-day-five_24.html
    But in fact his “Bits ‘n Bob’s” blog is in itself a collection of improv challenges, finding a topic of the month and creating sets of posts that spin off from it.
    And his separate “Letters from San Francisco” blog is built around the alphabet, a great improv model for just about anything… http://www.letterfromsanfrancisco.blogspot.com/

    Thanks, Vicki. Found Chris through you, and he deserves many, many readers 🙂

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