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Write outside the box

Write outside the box

This week in my Creative Writing class, I had students fill in the blanks to the following sentences. Try it.

1) Joe _________ the grape into his mouth.

2) The wind ____________ through the trees.

3) The dog ___________ the cat.

4) The snow ____________ under Joe’s feet.

5) The sun ___________ in the sky.

How did you do? Did Joe, by any chance, “pop” the grape into his mouth? Did the snow “crunch” under his feet? Did the dog “chase” or “eat” the cat? Every time I do this activity with students, almost half of them will choose the same predictable verb for each blank.

If you did too, congratulations – you have successfully learned what our educational system wants you to learn: “play it safe,” “write correctly, but not necessarily creatively,” or “only one word can be filled in on any blank.” If that’s you, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone.

Now, throw those lessons out the window and re-visit the above exercise.

It’s almost a cliche to say “avoid cliches,” and I’m not sure if avoiding them entirely is even possible. Instead, focus on writing unpredictably. Could Joe “peel the grape slowly, getting each bit of chewy rind off before slipping the naked slimy sphere into his mouth”? Which version do you like better?

Stephen King said, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s” (On Writing).  The following examples from my students and one recent book I read fit that instruction.

“I rushed through like a tumbleweed of blonde hair being pushed along by the wind of anticipation.” S. Wilson

“The night air licked at my exposed skin.” H. Flannery

“He’d lived on the mountain so long, he looked like a piece broken off of it, with his craggy face and the clothes that draped his skinny body like juniper on a hillside.” Cinda Williams Chima, The Demon King

These descriptions are unpredictable but also specific and imaginative. I love them.

The point of this exercise is for you to become aware of where your writing might be predictable. Go through your writing and find those spots. Did you choose an “expected” verb or adjective? If so, revise it. Then, in the comments below, share your original and revision. Which one do you like better? Why?