I’m taking a writing course right now and as part of the course you have to complete various writing exercises. You know, like “write a paragraph where you give insight into a character by describing their room rather than them.”
Easy enough, right?
I mean, I’m a good learner, so someone gives me a few examples of something and tells me to imitate it, and I’ll pull that puppy off like no one’s business.
But that’s not writing. Sure, sure, it’s putting words down on a page, which I guess technically is writing. But being good at writing exercises and writing a successful short story or novel are two completely different things.
Granted, if you can’t do writing exercises, I think it’s probably much harder to write a successful short story or novel. Because at some level you’re not grasping how the tools in your writerly toolbox actually work, and if you can’t tell the difference between the writer equivalent of a hammer and a screwdriver, you’re not going to know which tool to use when you need it.
But, see, that’s where writing and writing exercises diverge. At the risk of straining a metaphor to the breaking point, let’s continue with the tools comparison.
Writing exercises are kind of like taking a board and some nails and hammering in nails until you can consistently get them in there nice and straight. And then taking a drill and drilling screws into the board until you can get those in there where you want them to go, too. Useful skills to have.
Necessary skills if you want to build something that requires the use of a hammer or a drill.
But neither of those exercises are going to teach you how to build a fence. You can know that hammering nails is part of it, but what part? When do you use the hammer and what do you hammer together?
See, that’s where writing exercises fail me. I can mimic the skill, but that doesn’t mean I can use it.
Tell me to sit down and write a four-hundred word opening to a story where I focus on X, I will. But when I sit down to write a short story of my own, it won’t even cross my mind to focus on X.
Writing a successful story or novel requires not only using hundreds of different tools but using them at the right time.
And what distinguishes the person who is good at writing exercises from the person who is good at writing is knowing when and how to use each tool.
I definitely find value in taking courses like this one, because they isolate for me different tips and tricks and make me think about how they work and when to use them. But just because I can complete an assignment and get a little gold shiny star for it doesn’t mean I’ll be able to incorporate it into my writing in a way that strengthens my ability to tell a story.
I think this also gets back to something I saw often in my professional career. It’s very challenging to create something new, whether that’s a procedures manual for everyone to follow, a new process for handling something, or a completely new product.
Creation is hard.
But once someone else has created something, following it is much, much easier.
Writing is creation. Writing exercises are mimicry.