The surest fire way a student can improve their writing is by simply writing more. We can teach our students the various criteria for each writing genre, but without extensive practice putting pen to paper, technical knowledge isn’t worth the paper…ahem…it’s printed on.
Sure, we can initiate them into the deeper mysteries of English grammar and reveal the elusive secrets of punctuating complex sentences correctly. We can do all of this, but the surest way to make good writers of our students is to get them to write. Anything.
Writing exercises are much like turning up to the gym. Even if an exercise session isn’t a marathon session, the simple fact that the student showed up will ensure some kind of progress is made.
In this article, we’ll take a look at 7 evergreen writing exercises that will not only engage your students but provide them with some useful practice that will help them develop their overall writing skills.
These activities for creative writing can be used at any time of the year, whether as fillers, standalone exercises, or as a part of a wider sequence.
From the humorous to the absurd, don’t let the entertainment value and focus on fun blind you to the fact that a writing student is an improving student.
Let’s get started!
Writing Task 1. In One Hundred Words
Good writing is as much about what’s left out as what’s put in. This is why editing is such a crucial part of the writing process.
In this activity, students must explain how to do something in one hundred words or less.
This challenges students to place a premium on each word they use. The more complex they are explaining, the more difficult it will be to stay within the word count.
While writing one hundred words for most students won’t take too long, keeping their explanation within such a restrictive limit will require careful editing and rewriting.
Students will learn the importance of brevity and conciseness in their writing when engaged in this activity. It’s usually best to do this exercise first with an activity that students are very familiar with, say, how to tie shoelaces, for example.
Later, you can then ask them to explain, in one hundred words or fewer, something more complex and/or something they are less familiar with. Like, for example, changing a tire on a car.
Writing Task 2. Shifting Genres
One of the most important things that our students learn in their study of English is the different criteria that apply when writing for different purposes. Each genre makes specific demands in terms of structure, format, and language.
In this activity, students take texts written in one genre and rewrite them in another. Just as we see book/movie/video game tie-ins, this activity will require students to take a text in one genre and transpose it into another.
For example, you could set the students the task of converting John Donne’s famous poem Death, Be Not Proud into a letter addressed to death personified.
Or, you could challenge students to take a familiar fairy tale and rework it into the form of a playscript.
As far as nonfiction genres go, how about transposing a letter into the form of a news report?
The possible pairings are potentially numerous and while this activity can be great fun, it will also help your students internalize the different criteria for the various writing genres.
Another variation of this exercise is to have students rewrite passages of text in a different style. You could ask students to rewrite a tragic scene from Romeo and Juliet in the form of a comedy, or a scene from a horror story could be rewritten as science fiction, for example.
Writing Task 3. Shifting Perspectives
Similar to the activity outlined above, this exercise requires students to do some rewriting. However, unlike the previous activity, here it is the narrative perspective that changes rather than the genre of the text itself.
This exercise is a good way to encourage students to reflect in more detail on a story they are studying in class and it works well for all types of fiction.
The process here is very simple, students first identify the narrative perspective in a story and then retell that story from a different narrative perspective.
For example, if the original version of the story is told in the omniscient third person, they may retell it in the first person, perhaps choosing to retell it from the perspective of the story’s main character.
On the other hand, if the story is already told from the perspective of the main character, students could retell the story from the perspective of a secondary character.
Traditional fairy tales are a great tool to use for this exercise. The stories are usually so familiar that students have no difficulty recalling the plot. This allows them to focus their writing efforts on the change in narrative perspective.
For example, you could have your students retell the story of Hansel and Gretel from the witch’s perspective or Cinderella from the point of view of one of the ugly sisters.
This is a great exercise for students to discover for themselves some of the advantages and challenges of choosing to write from a particular narrative perspective.
Writing Task 4. Old Photographs
Visual stimuli can serve as an excellent method to kick start a student’s imagination as well as their pen.
In this exercise, ask students to go home and rummage through old albums and basements to locate an interesting old photograph or two. This activity works best if the student themself is not in it.
If students have trouble locating an old photograph, a simple internet image search will help them find a suitable stimulus for this exercise. Just be sure they print off the chosen image as a hard copy will be needed to complete this task.
Tell the student that each photograph tells a story and, in this activity, it is their job to uncover just what that story is.
To do this, students should find a quiet spot to sit and examine the photograph/s carefully. To
help get the creative juices flowing, students should then ask themselves the following questions:
● Who is in the photograph?
● What is the relationship between the people in the photograph?
● Where are they from?
● What is happening in the photograph?
● What are the people thinking?
● What are they saying to each other?
● Where and when was the photograph taken?
● Who took the photograph?
When they have had time to tease a story (setting, characters, problem, climax, resolution) from their photographs and made some notes, they are ready to start the writing process.
Remember too, this is a creative writing exercise. Students shouldn’t get too hung up on grammar, spelling, and punctuation on the first run through. Encourage them to get the story out first. They can fix any mechanical issues later.
Writing Task 5. ‘Borrow’ Someone’s Story
This is a useful exercise to teach the difference between biography and autobiography but it also works great as a standalone writing exercise too.
Students take a story they like that someone told them and rewrite it as if it happened to them. The story may be a favorite one a grandparent tells or something they recall reading in a nonfiction book they enjoyed.
In their retelling of the tale, students must place themselves in the centre of the action. They must include enough detail in their writing to convince readers that the story is something they experienced themselves.
Students shouldn’t worry too much if they can’t remember every detail of the original story, they can use their imagination to flesh out any missing details.
As part of a bigger project on biography/autobiography writing, this exercise could be combined with research tasks uncovering stories from older family members such as grandparents. Students could interview grandparents to uncover stories from their youth and select one that particularly appeals to them to rewrite in the first person.
Writing Task 6. Write a Letter to Your Younger Self
The title of this exercise is self-explanatory. Students think back to a time in their lives when they could have used advice and counsel based on what they know now about life.
Prior to beginning the writing process, students should take some time to reflect on the problems they once faced and how an older and wiser version of themselves would handle those problems now.
To do this, they’ll need to find a quiet place to sit and recollect the feelings and emotions they experienced at that time. They should reflect carefully on what the best course of action would be, knowing what they know now.
Emphasize to the students that they should try to see their younger selves as separate people. This will give them the perspective needed to offer advice, criticism, compassion, and forgiveness.
This is a popular journaling exercise, but it is also used in therapy to encourage the healing of past traumas.
As a result, in the classroom, you may want to put some parameters on the problems students address. You most certainly don’t want to open up old wounds that you are ill-equipped to deal with in this context.
Appropriate parameters can be easily set by wording the task in a restrictive fashion. For example, you might say something like, “I want you to think back to a time when you did something that hurt someone’s feelings. What advice would you give to your younger self?”
When students have finished writing their letters, and if they’re comfortable, they can then share their letters with each other. This offers everyone the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others – a much less painful path on the road to wisdom!
Writing Task 7. Describe Where You Are
This can be a great filler activity as it requires zero preparation and no resources other than paper and pen.
Sitting in their chairs, standing outside, or riding on a bus, this exercise can be undertaken anywhere and at any time when it’s possible for a student to put pen to paper.
All students need to do is to write a few paragraphs describing where they are at the moment of writing.
They will need to use descriptive language to evoke their surroundings. Encourage your students to employ all their senses to convey where they are and how it feels to be there.
For these descriptive writing activities, students can do this in the first person or the third person and usually in the present tense. For example:
I am sitting at my desk looking out the window and across the rundown industrial estate. Behind me, I hear workers chattering above the hum of a radio talk show. The smell of the overripe banana in the trash fills the office. I feel tired to the bone as the clock on the wall slowly ticks its way toward hometime.
The old swivel chair creaks as he turns to look out the window across the rundown industrial estate. Behind him, the workers chattering voices rise above the hum of the radio in the background. The sickly sweet smell of a rotting banana fills the office. Exhausted, he watches the clock hands tick slowly toward the end of the workday.
This is a great exercise for students to develop their creative writing skills and learn how to bring life to their story-telling.
A Few Final Words…
Writing is arguably the most complex and difficult of all the language skills to develop to a high standard. Many of our students will go out of their way to write anything longer than a tweet.
These exercises provide some quick and easy activities to get your students writing. However, don’t let their convenience fool you, they each offer valuable opportunities for students to develop their writing skills in the classroom.
Any writing practice is an opportunity for your students to improve, even if it isn’t writing a conventional essay. The evergreen activities above can be pulled out and used at the drop of the proverbial hat – just make sure you have plenty of pre-sharpened pencils to hand!
The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.