Writer's Workout

©  | Dreamstime Stock Photos
With New Year’s not too far gone in the rear-view mirror, we’re talking fitness! Writing fitness, that is. Just like any muscle, we've got to work our writing muscles to keep them in shape. Test them in different ways, strengthen them, make them lean and mean.

Here are some sample “workouts” to try next time you get some quality Butt-in-Chair time!

Speed: Word sprints
Want to write faster? Try this one. Give yourself a set time-frame and a set word count, then get ready to dash. Start with a goal of 500 words in 30 minutes, or whatever matches your baseline writing speed. You can even do mini-sprints, where you aim for 100 words in 5-10 minutes. Teamwork helps too - find a few friends to sprint with you! It forces you to get your ideas on paper and move the story forward with the understanding you’ll edit later.

Tighten: Reducing word counts
I like to use excerpts from familiar published novels for this exercise. Take a paragraph as is, grab its word count so you know your starting point, then try to whittle it down at different levels. 250 words. 100. 75. See how bare bones you can get it, and how the scene changes (sometimes for good, sometimes bad) as more words are cut. You’ll start to see similar cutting opportunities in your own work, and you’ll develop instincts about when to cut, and when you’re in danger of cutting too much.

I did a full example from The Hunger Games here.

Strengthen: Circle the verbs & be precise
Take a page in your current MS and highlight the verbs. Now brainstorm how you could make each one stronger. Is there a more compelling word choice? Punch it up! You might also find places to improve the pace using verbs with fewer syllables, but the same meaning.

Once you've action-packed your verbs, try doing the same thing with your descriptions or nouns. Use specifics and precision to make your world and characters come alive. Here’s a quick example of what to look for:
  • I heard a sound from the abandoned second level.
  • I heard running water from the abandoned second level.

There’s nothing wrong with the first version, but the second paints a stronger picture in readers’ minds because it’s more specific.

Go Deeper: Push your characters
Find places to push your characters to their limits – physically and emotionally. What would they never do? Make them do it, and give them a compelling reason why. What is the opposite of their natural personality? Write a scene that forces them to act that way. What’s the line you’re afraid to cross for them? Cross it.

Donald Maass has excellent exercises related to this in his “Writing the Breakout Novel” workbook. Even if you don’t use these scenes in your final MS, going through them will strengthen your characters AND your understanding of how they’ll react to different situations.

And, we’ve come full circle to Butt-in-Chair. Like all good exercises, practice makes perfect. So, keep at it and write, write, write!

Tips from Last Week's #4Writers

In case you missed last week's #4Writers on Twitter, here's a summary of the insights. Join us again a week from Tuesday. 7:30 p.m. CST.


  1. I like the reducing word count one, although I usually have to do the opposite. The verb one would help.
    My typing pace is 350 words an hour. Yeah, there is room for improvement!

  2. I've been trying to work on my hourly work count output since I have such limited time to write. I'm trying to get to 1000 words an hour. At least my butt's in the chair--practicing!

  3. Alex - Ooh, I hadn't thought of an exercise to help flesh out a story. That's a good one!

    Michael - Same here! Good luck.

  4. These are excellent tips, Nicole, thanks. I like the strengthening verbs one, I need to have a go at that one.