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16 minute writing workout (prose skills writing exercise)

16-minute prose writing workout

(6 min read) I love using this 16-minute prose writing workout to sharpen core skills. This writing exercise trains perspective, tense, and taste. It has made me more decisive, comfortable, and intentional with my prose on the page.

You’ll need a timer/alarm/stopwatch, because there are four parts that have four minutes each; it’s got some game show energy, because writing is allowed to be fun. You will also need a computer, because I love scribbling in notebooks but typing is faster and this is a speedrun.

Read the directions before you begin, so that you can be ready once your timer starts!

I designed this writing exercise ages ago, but I still use it as a warmup. If you lived in my office, you’d see me bringing this one out sometimes to get my mind focused before my morning coffee has fully kicked in. The hair gets messy, but the prose stays tight.

In this writing exercise, you won’t exactly be “writing.” It’s not a prompt. It’s a workout. Not every writing exercise has to generate text. Sometimes it’s more useful to sharpen your tools and your taste.

4 Mins: PREP

You don’t need a barbell for this workout, but you do need about 100 words of something you did not write. Let’s get it now.

Narrative will work best. Get something that includes a hint of story and event. So, use the beginning of an essay or grab a paragraph from the middle of a novel, rather than using a dictionary entry or list of breakfast cereal ingredients.

The text doesn’t have to be anything special. No need to choose a favorite (or especially hated) piece of writing. Just something you didn’t write that has some bit of event in it. Look for text where something happens; even something small like standing up or sitting down. Flip a book open to a random page and grab an excerpt. Take the top headline newspaper article that’s the first thing you see on the website. Just a bit of something; around 100 words, which is usually about one short-ish paragraph.

Now, type it up.

(Even if it’s digital and you could simply cut and paste it, retype it. You need to spend the time examining each word. Retyping things is a hardcore close read.)

Okay, you’ve typed it up. Hopefully less than 4 minutes to hunt, choose, and type.

Now we’re gonna mess it up.

Keep your original text. You want to hold onto that. But we’re gonna make two more copies (cut-and-paste is fine here) so that you have three total copies of the text in your working document.

We’re gonna ruin two of them.

4 Mins: TIME

Let’s ruin one copy!

Set a timer for 5 mins and mess with the time and tense. You’re not allowed to change anything else about this text. You can change whether the described events happened in the past, present, or future. That’s it.

So, if the original text says things happened in the past (“He said…”), put it in the present (“He says…”) or even the future (“He will say…”), and if the original text is about stuff that will happen (“I’ll walk…”), change it so those things already happened (“I walked…”) or are happening now (“I walk…”.)

With just those few tweaks, how much can you change the meaning? Can it become completely hypothetical? Can it become a distant memory? See what shifts when you change the time and tense. What are the limits of how different you can make this prose with JUST THAT CHANGE?

If you’re finished before four minutes are up, read it over and think about it. What do you notice? What’s exciting to read, what’s comfortable, what’s confusing? What’s different from the original and what is the same? Is one of them an easier match for how you naturally think? See what you can notice. Think about it until the timer goes off. This will help train you to make great choices about when to write in past, present, or future tense.

4 Mins: PERSPECTIVE

Let’s ruin another copy! In a different way!

This time, rewrite the original text (in its original time and tense) but from a different perspective.

The only thing you can change is perspective.

Technical terms are 1st person (I walked…), second person (You walked…), 3rd person (They walked…), with lots of technical subsets (3rd person close, 3rd person omniscient) in the taxonomy. But this is a basic exercise. All you really need to worry about for this is “Does this text tell the story using ‘I, You, or They?”

Whichever it is, change it.

If your original text is a newspaper article about someone, change it to a (fictionalized, obviously) memoir written by that person themselves. If it’s a personal essay, rewrite it as a journalist’s report on the evening news. If it’s a conversation told from one person’s perspective, try telling it from the other person’s perspective, etc. Or just shift what the narrator thinks of the reader; keep it in confessional essay form, but switch the vibe and talk to the reader like they’re foolish or a genius.

Try to keep as much of the original core information as you can. As much as possible, tell the same story. Change only the perspective.

How much of the same core information can come with you when you change the perspective? Are you forced to leave things out? What works seamlessly even with this change? Do you find that you instinctively want to add something? Do you notice any other changes that want to happen along with this change in vantage point?

Four minutes is probably not enough time to do this well.

That’s part of the point!

You’re not trying to get it perfect. You are practicing making fast decisions and acting on them as you learn. This exercise is probably not valuable enough to spend five whole minutes on, so you’re gonna stop when the alarm goes off.

If you do finish ahead of time, have a look at your text and see how you feel about it. What’s exciting to read? What’s comfortable? What’s confusing? Think about it until the timer goes off. This will help train you to make more fascinating choices about what perspective to use when you tell stories in your own prose.

4 Mins: TASTE

Ok, now you’ve got three versions of the same tiny text.

Pick your favorite.

That might take about two seconds, or it may take the whole four minutes.

Choose which one you like the best.

Then, use your remaining time (if any) to figure out why you picked it.

What do you like about that text? How is it more interesting than the others? Do you like it because it makes more sense? Less sense? Because there’s more of your own voice in it? Less of your own voice? Is there a more interesting character somehow?

If you can find one clear reason why you like this version best, that’s an asset to you as a writer. Now you know something specific that you like to see on the page. You can use that in your prose. Keep doing it deliberately. It’ll help you like your own work more.

Some of writing is a process of learning to create, but a lot of writing is the process of learning to decide.

Anything that helps you trust yourself, hear yourself, or make a decision with thoughtful confidence is GREAT practice for writing.

WHY I MADE THIS SPECIFIC WRITING EXERCISE

I came up with this workout combo myself because I couldn’t find the training I needed.

Dialogue dominated my writing career from the jump (scripts, theater, video games, etc), so when I wanted to level up my prose (articles, stories, books) I had to build a lot of technical skills. But a beginner’s writing class wasn’t right for me, because I’d been writing professionally for years. So I ended up cooking my own curriculum.

In coaching, I’ve found that a lot of what I’ve learned about how to teach myself this stuff can also fast-track other writers. I hope this writing workout might help you. If it doesn’t, you only wasted 16 minutes! Plus, you prioritized your creative voice for a little bit. That’s great exercise on its own. If you make trying new things a habit as a writer, you’ll grow a lot faster… even if not all of them pan out.

This writing workout helped me get the confidence with my tools to take some risks. Four minutes at a time, I learned more about my own taste and what kind of perspective is most useful for different kinds of texts. It’s because of this writing exercise that I realized that a story I was working on needed to shift from 1st person (“I did blah blah blah”) to 3rd person (“Character name did blah blah blah”), even though that wasn’t genre standard. By knowing my tools better through this exercise, I set that story free. It became a lot more interesting to read and way, way, way easier to write.

When you know your toolkit well, you know how to reach for the tools that make your job as easy as possible.

Want something slower? Try Don’t Write Every Day (4 mins.)

xo, megan

Thanks for giving this a few minutes. I hope it felt supportive.


Writing coach Megan Cohen is a white cis woman with soft femme hair. She wears black but stands in front of a wall covered in brightly colored brainstorming post-it notes. She smiles with closed lips and warm eyes. Her skin is amazing even though she's middle-aged.

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