Two exercises to help you 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.

One 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 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?