Cramping Your Style
Updated: May 28
We are living in a time of restrictions. Along with it, a whole new lexicon of bubbles, social distancing and r-rates. While limits are tough, using them might be one of the keys to successful creating.
Ideas and creativity don’t always come easy. We’ve all had the experience of staring at a blank page and doubting our ability to create anything worthwhile ever again. If you’re in this predicament, giving yourself permission to create anything at all is horrifying. I can write about anything, at any length?! Impossible. At these times, applying severe restrictions might be just what you need to get things going again.
To help you, here are a few constrained activities (writing-based but would work for other types of creating) to get you going again.
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1. Six-word stories
A nice easy one to begin with. You could write the story of your life, or just the story of your day, or the last week. Having such a severe restriction on your word limit makes you choose your vocabulary very carefully, and also forces you to reduce a narrative to the tiniest of spheres. Give it a go, would love to see your examples in the comments!
2. Writing sprints
Freewriting or timed writing are very similar, but the idea of a sprint is to keep focused on a particular prompt or project in the time, rather than letting your mind wander and let whatever comes out onto the page.
Either take an existing piece that is resisting all efforts at developing, or choose a prompt or image that is related to it. Set yourself a time (anything from 10 to 20mins works, and you can increase the time as you get better at it) and just write.
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You’ll be surprised at how quickly the words come out under a strict time limit, and it can be something you integrate into your regular writing practice to help drive your word count up (very handy for first drafts).
This one is a bit more specific but can produce some interesting results. For each consecutive line, you need to add one new letter. Here’s an example:
You can also try lengthening the lines like this:
I am fat with angry shouts.
A no can draw livid tempest.
While this won’t necessarily help with adding to your project, it certainly gets you thinking over the minute meanings and sounds of words, which should help with your style and voice. Try it!
4. Say It Again
This is very fun as well as being an exercise used by writers in the 1500s. The idea is simple: take one sentence, and express the same idea, but with different words. This example is taken from Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style by Erasmus:
Another exercise that will have you carefully crafting your language and thinking carefully about each word.
We tried this in my Wednesday Scribbles workshop this week, with surprising results. All you do is write, but miss out one letter of the alphabet. To make it incredibly tricky, you can exclude the letter ‘e.’ It is possible. This story has 50,000 words in it and the writer taped down the ‘e’ on his typewriter to make sure he didn’t use it.
To make it a bit easier, you could miss out a different letter. We ended up having a great game of ‘guess the letter’ when someone read their piece and we had to figure out which letter they hadn’t used. We found that missing out ’t’ gave the writing style a much harsher, grating sound, while missing out ‘e’ ended up being more direct as it was impossible to use any reporting words like he, she or they.
I’m sure you’d notice other things if you missed out other letters. Once again, it gets you thinking about words and sounds much more than if you were slogging through your story, and is bound to give your creative spark a boost.
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A last thought is that you could cut your time into manageable chunks, using the Pomodoro Technique, where you focus for 25 minutes and then take a break for five. It’s most often associated with office-based work and productivity, but it could definitely be useful if you’re struggling to get the words out. If this topic interests you, head here to find out more about the ‘Oulipo’ movement and how it used constrained writing.
As with many things, it’s a bit of a tightrope. Give yourself too many restrictions and it will be difficult to write at all, but the curse of choice should give you just as much to fear. Try out these techniques yourself, I’d love to hear how you get on.
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