10 Creative Writing Tips to Break Out of Your Rut

Writing exercises that will help you surprise yourself and the reader

You don’t have to be suffering from writer’s block to feel like you’re in a creative rut.

Maybe you’re wildly prolific, but all your material is starting to sound the same. Maybe you’ve written a short story you love, but just can’t find the right way to end it. Maybe you’ve been working away on a sonnet that really wants to be a villanelle.

Oftentimes, plot (or what we could call direction/momentum/impulse in a poem or piece of experimental fiction) can open up in interesting ways when we leave it alone for a minute and simply listen to the tone or voice of the writing itself.

Here are a number of writing exercises you can use when you’d like to experiment with voice, strengthen your writing muscles, and take your poetic or storytelling skills in surprising new directions.

1. Use an unreliable narrator

Nabokov had Humbert Humbert. Frank Bidart had Herbert White. Randy Newman has… hell, almost every song he’s written is from the perspective of someone you just can’t trust.

And here’s the thing about unreliable narrators: when you know you can’t trust them, you believe in them all the more!

So next time you write, step into the mind of someone evil, someone painfully insecure, someone shady, someone with a mansion-sized ego, etc.

2. Harness the power of ambiguity

On the one hand, I feel this way. On the other hand, I feel that way.  Yin/Yang. Day/Night. Ebb/Flow. Winter/Summer. Life/Death. Dualities (or multiplicities) pull us in all different directions, but you don’t need to be loyal to any one force. Stay in the middle and let yourself feel those competing tensions. Write it!

3. Toy with tone and create surprise

Alternate your style and diction. Disagree with a statement you’d just made a moment before. Include a couple mundane details and then hit them with the whopper of all confessions. If you can surprise yourself and it still feels true — that’s good writing.

4. Parataxis Vs. Hypotaxis

Well, I could use a whole blog post to talk about Parataxis vs. Hypotaxis — so I’ll just point you HERE instead. Related to this, try alternating the length of your sentences or lines. What happens?

5. Consider rhythm

If you tend to write rhythmically, succumbing to the music in your mind, resist that urge and write against the rhythm (which is, of course, its own new rhythm!). If you don’t have innate rhythmic impulses in your writing, try to hear the lyrical nature of your words; play with repetition; and imagine yourself singing your sentences out loud.

6. Directness vs. obfuscation

What are you really trying to say? Is it more interesting if you come right out with it, or is it better to write around that subject or theme? Should your reader feel the quick punch or thrill at the slow reveal? Both methods can yield interesting emotional results. Try ’em out!

7. Got rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the kind of speech used to persuade or motivate. Think of Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for an excellent example. For less impressive examples, turn on CNN or Fox News and listen to our elected officials. Rhetoric is not ordinary, everyday speech. Often it’s aim is to tug on your heart strings and appeal to your reason, while at the same time, it maintains a certain aloofness.

Rhetoric often assumes authority — and that’s where it can be particularly interesting as a device in fiction or poetry. You can say something banal in an authoritative tone. You can experiment with how rhetoric alters emotional impact. You can make a statement in a high-flying fashion, and then swoop low to undercut it. Play around. If it doesn’t work in your writing, you’ll at least be honing your skills for the next Town Hall meeting you attend.

8. Compression and expansion

Think of an epic storyline — something that would take 500 pages to tell. Now compress it into 1000 words without it reading like a book report. If you find it difficult to maintain a musicality to your writing while compressing a storyline so dramatically, read some prose poetry for inspiration.

Conversely, think of a single idea — it can be something that fascinates you or something that seems totally unassuming — and then obsess on it! 5 pages. 10 pages. More. What did you discover? Where did it lead you?

9. Embrace the tropes of another genre

Oftentimes, when we attempt to ape elements from other genres, we end up with something uniquely our own. For instance, what do you get when you cross the archetypal hero’s journey with Samurai films, Buck Rogers, Westerns, and the Grail Quest? You probably know the answer: Star Wars!

So set your next romance novel in the world of LA Noir/crime/mystery. Write a vampire book in the form of a self-help memoir. You get the idea.

10. Use “uncreative” writing

No, I’m not talking about Kenneth Goldsmith’s version of Uncreative Writing, though that could open up some new creative possibilities for you too. What I’m referring to is the writing you have to do AROUND and ABOUT your main creative writing projects: website copy, press releases, blurbs, bios, pitches.

By writing THAT stuff before (or alongside) your creative writing, you might learn some interesting things about your project, voice, approach, inclinations, etc.

And yes, I know writing bios and press releases and copy CAN be creative.

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Hopefully these ten writing exercises help you break out of patterns that are no longer working for you.

I’d love to hear some of your methods for bringing a sense of play back into your writing. How do you surprise yourself and your reader? Let me know in the comments section below.

[Image of ruts from Shutterstock.]

Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 563 posts in this blog.

is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

5 thoughts on “10 Writing Exercises to Break You Out of Your Creative Rut

  1. Rio says:

    Hi Jane,An interesting diocssuisn but for the most part, I disagree. I view eBook publishing to be too volatile now. It reminds me of the cassette tape days and the days of Betamax versus VHS and now Blue Ray versus regular DVD, to wit, there are too many formats. I see all kinds of services out there that tell authors to publish their eBook for $ X where X is small, but they end up with only the Kindle format. Until the format issue is settled or the number is reduced to something reasonable (this word is always loaded with subjectivity and oft determined by marketing forces Betamax was the better format, for example, but it lost), I would advise every author to hedge their bets and do both a pBook and an eBook for now.Another point: minimal POD services like CreateSpace are just that minimal. People do judge a book by its cover, for example, and there are some POD services that will take one’s idea and do a nice job on the cover. As a reviewer, I can state that many authors, both POD and eBook, should also take advantage of the inexpensive editing services offered by the publishers.Finally, I don’t consider that I’m ignorant about the publishing end. Both POD and eBooks are variations on a theme, namely digital publishing. They both give an author tremendous control over a good part of the publishing process. I am ignorant about marketing. In this very competitive market, many authors like me need help and that is usually expensive!Take care r/SteveSteven M. Mooreb4s last blog post ..Like? 0

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