Fake Tweets & Mapping the Kardashians
Behind the Book: Writing exercises I love
Hey, how are y’all doing? I’ve been spending a few days away to give my partner creative space at home. We haven’t spent a day apart in over a year (pandemmy) and it’s weird!
In the spirit of rest that I’m trying to conjure here in this cabin by the lake (I definitely feel like maybe I got the better end of this whole “creative space” thing since my partner is still in our same old house and has to water all my plants) I decided to keep this post pretty simple and share some of my favorite writing exercises.
These are exercises I’ve developed over the past years of teaching. They have helped me a lot and have helped other writers that I’ve taught. I hope they can help deepen and broaden your writing too! I’m sharing these for your personal (read: don’t use these for commercial purposes without my written permission) use.
Twitter Threads: Wait - wut? I know, I know. Before you try to tell me that you don’t have twitter or that twitter is a toxic hellhole let me say that a) good, b) I know, and c) we’re not really going to tweet anything. I came up with this exercise when I realized how often I was using twitter to test my writing ideas. Back in the day, when I was on twitter all of the time, I would often string together a few tweets on a topic that was hot on my mind and see how it was resonating with people. I could pretty instantly see how engaged people were with the topic and whether or not my take on it was showing potential for wider interest.
This was useful enough, as an opinion writer, but I also found that this process was making me a better, more succinct writer. The secret is in how the tweets are structured and how the platform works. You have a limited amount of characters to work with at a time. You can communicate larger thoughts by stringing tweets together but you must do so in chunks of these character sets. And, most importantly, you don’t know where in these chunks of character sets readers are going to enter the conversation. They might enter on tweet one, but they are just as likely to enter in tweet 5. So each chunk of text has to be complete and compelling enough to grab the reader and encourage them to delve further in order to figure out what the hell you’re talking about while also adding to a cohesive overall story that rewards that engagement.
One of my most fun writing exercises was to create a paper template marking out chunks of 140 characters (I find the old, smaller twitter parameters best for this) and having writers tell a short story with it, and then read a random chunk out loud to see if it alone would be enough to make the reader want to engage further. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to make us all write like we’re competing for eyeballs on the hellscape of social media, but to get us comfortable with making succinct and still compelling points when we need to, and also showing us how many unnecessary words we often use that can really clutter our text. So, pick a character or word limit and try to tell a story in chunks of these character limits. Write each chunk like it needs to stand alone and be a part of the overall story. It’s harder than it looks! But if practiced over time, you’ll find the skills you pick up can make all of your writing more impactful.
Opinion Origin Story: This is perhaps my most used writing exercise in my classes. While I mostly teach other essayists and opinion writers, I’ve found that this exercise is just as important for fiction and other writing styles. I usually pick a topic that has a lot of strong opinions and low stakes - the Kardashians. Everybody has an opinion on the Kardashians. Even people who don’t have an opinion on the Kardashians, really strongly don’t have an opinion. I ask people to share their Kardashian opinions and there are always a lot. Write yours down.
Then, we take our own personal Kardashian opinion and investigate it. The truth is, there was a time where none of us knew who the Kardashians were (I’m assuming no actual Kardashians are reading this, but if any of you are - hi! Can I please have some of your money?). At some point we really did have no Kardashian opinions because we had no Kardashian awareness. So, how did we get to where we are now? Map your journey of Kardashian awareness. How did you first find out about them? What was your very first impression? Why did you have that impression? Did that first impression change? When did it change? What happened to change it? After you map your journey of Kardashian awareness, look at your Kardashian opinion you first stated. Does your journey make sense? What does it tell you about how you formed that opinion? Is that opinion justified? Is it still the same?
This exercise is helpful for a lot of reasons. 1) A lot of people have very strong opinions that they’ve never investigated themselves. A lot of people write entire essays, and even books, on an opinion that they can’t even remember the origin of and sometimes that origin can be a really toxic place or from an experience lacking in any real substance. 2) A lot of people write like the “right” opinion they have is one that they’ve always had, which can’t be true, unless the opinion is that “food and shelter are important and I don’t want to be eaten by lions” - otherwise, those opinions were formed over time and were at some point different than they are today. When we fail to acknowledge this, not only are we being dishonest in our writing, but we are also creating an image of infallibility that alienates our reader. 3) If we want to convince people of something, instead of just preaching to the choir, we need to find them where they are on their awareness journey. Mapping out our own can then help us identify spots to back up to where we can bring people along. 4) When telling stories and creating characters, spending time with a character’s awareness journey will help us create characters that are more real and will help better engage readers.
You don’t have to only do this with the Kardashians - it’s just a good way to start and it helps you realize that even with lighthearted topics, the exercise is really helpful! (Btw: a lot of people in my classes realize with this exercise how often sexist ideas about how women should make money or control their image actually dictate their opinions on the Kardashians that they had always thought were quite feminist in origin. Just sayin.) But try this exercise with any topic and see what happens!
Well, that’s it for now. I’m going to get back to alternating between staring out at the water and watching British murder mysteries (I’m really roughing it here). If you try either of these exercises, comment and let me know how they worked for you! Let me know in the comments what some of your favorite writing exercises are.
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