We have distilled the principles and exercises from the VerbalEyze writers workshop curriculum into a series of online mini-lessons. Each lesson below begins with a discussion of best practices related to the lesson topic. Then there are one or more exercises in each of five genres of writing (poetry, fiction, song writing, playwriting, and creative non-fiction) that give you help you put the best practices to work.
These mini-lessons are not intended to be a one-time experience. We encourage you to revisit each of these lessons and the related exercises several times as a way of continuing to hone your skill as a writer.
If you have found value in these mini-lessons, please consider a donation to support the work VerbalEyze is doing with young writers. Thank you.
Writing Is Observing
To See and Not to See
Think for a moment: How can improving your observational skills enhance the quality of your writing. What does it mean to observe with all five of your senses? What does it mean to observe in that manner when you are writing?
The composition of the whole is found in the details. However, to see something is not simply to relate an image, it is to interpret the image. What details do you include? What details do you exclude?
Without specific attention, our sense of sight overwhelms the other five senses. A natural prejudice toward sight easily pervades your writing if you are not actively aware of the specifics of how you are crafting your descriptions. The genre exercises in the lesson help focus you on bringing the full array of your senses to the forefront in your writing.
Exercise: “I Experience but Not I”
Write in an impromptu fashion to an external stimulus or image.
Ignore any self-censoring tendency and just write.
Then complete these sentence beginnings: I see…, I hear…, I carry…, I touch…, I smell…
Finally craft a poem from all this material. The poem can’t be in first person and must evoke the senses.
Exercise: “Speaking the World Around Us”
Write a three paragraph description of a setting that includes all the senses.
Then write a dialogue between two characters where:
1) descriptions of setting details naturally emerge in the dialogue, and
2) details of the setting shape the dialogue.
Exercise: “Touching the Non-touchable”
Choose a subject for a song that is not tangible.
Compose at least three verses.
Each verse must use a different sense around which to develop details about the subject.
Write the chorus free of sensory language.
Exercise: “Acting in the World Around Us”
Envision the setting of a scene, both physical elements and abstract elements.
Then draft set dressing directions that convey key sensory details of the setting.
Write a scene that makes use of the sensory aspects of the set. The scene should include character dialogue and stage directions.
Exercise: “Bringing the Past Alive”
Write a description of a scene of an event that happened in the past, but at which you were not present.
The description should be grounded in reality, but you can take poetic license with the details.
The focus is on vibrant sensory descriptions that bring the scene alive to the reader.
Crossing the Senses
How can improving your observational skills by thinking of sensory descriptions in new and innovative ways enhance the quality of your writing? We are conditioned to think of each domain of sensory descriptions to be self-contained: sight is sight, sound is sound, etc. However, careful consideration demonstrates that the senses are inherently interconnected. The qualities you perceive in what you hear is informed by what you see. The taste of food is informed by how it smells, and so on.
A key technique to vivid writing is to merge the senses. Language that combines the senses creates deeper levels of meaning and texture for the reader. This language occurs naturally and is used by speakers everyday, but the writer uses it intentionally and creatively.
One high-level exercise is called “Similes of the Senses.” In it you write similes patterned “It [sense action] like [sense description]” then swap out the sense actions and sense descriptions in creative ways.
Exercise: “Beyond the Cliché”
Select one of the cross-sense similes and then think of a related cliché.
Write a poem that begins with the cliché but expands out to the cross-sensory simile.
The poem should explore the implications of the simile.
Exercise: “What Would Colors See?”
Select a color. Write a short story in which the color is the main character.
Embody the color and see the world as the color would. Think of aspects of the color beyond the visual. As a related example, a two-dimensional circle would see a pyramid as an object that inexplicably started out as a single point, but expanded out into a large square.
For a more challenging variation, select a sound.
Choose one of the cross-sense similes and write a song that explores the implications of the simile in a real-world context.
For an alternate or second activity, write a song that speaks of:
- love being like the sound of joy,
- hope being like a wind of the sun.
Exercise: “If Sounds Could Talk”
List three different sounds either using onomatopoeia (e.g. buzz, swoosh) or descriptive phrases (e.g. a car crash, a crack of thunder).
Then create a character sketch of each sound describing what the sound would look like as a physical character, its attitudes and motivations.
Finally write a one or two scene play in which the sound characters interact with each other.
Exercise: “Exactly Like This but Different”
Write a series of descriptive paragraphs about a real event.
You should describe:
- all colors using taste imagery,
- all tastes using sound imagery,
- all sounds using smell imagery.
- all smells using color imagery.
How can improving your observational skills with regard to your memories enhance the quality of your writing? Impressions recalled from prior life events are much more dependent on the way we observe them mentally. Memories are not so much facts about the past as they are feelings and emotions. Memories are tied strongly to the senses, such as sound, taste, and smell. Remembering is as much a reservoir of emotional experiences to draw on as it is about relating what happened to you.
As an initial writing exercise list several events from the past, then next two each event, connect associated emotions and sensory perceptions. Then next to each event write about its possible meanings. Finally pick an event from the past in the third person, as if it happened to a fictional character.
Exercise: “It’s Not All About Me”
Draft a poem about a childhood memory.
Then, rewrite the poem using “I” no more that twice, “me” no more than twice, and “my” no more than twice.
Think of a memory of a moment in your life that seems boring. Write a four stanza poem about the scene that memory calls to mind.
In each stanza, depict an ordinary object that is part of the scene and depict that object in an interesting way.
Exercise: “What Never Happened”
Think of someone you know.
Now, think of that person in the doing something that person would never do or has never done.
Write a short story about that person in that context. Remember to keep your portrayal of the person true to who you know them to be.
Exercise: “Viewpoints on the Past”
Write a song based on a past event.
Write the verses in third person and the chorus in first person.
Write at least four verses.
Exercise: “Pick a Fight”
Remember an emotional moment in your life or the life of someone you know.
Write stage directions that describe the scene in which the emotional moment happened. Your stage directions should provide the instructions necessary to reconstruct the scene on a stage.
Write an initial line of dialogue for a character that relates how you or a person you know felt in that moment. A second character immediately contradicts or challenges what the first character says. Complete the scene.
Exercise: “I in Third”
Write a memoir scene of an event that happened involving both yourself and someone you know.
You are to write this scene in third person and from the point of view of the other person in the scene.
Since you will be referring to yourself in third person, you cannot convey your own internal thoughts or feelings directly, only through dialogue and language.
Learning to Feel
How can improving your ability to observe your feelings enhance the quality of your writing? The ability to incorporate observations about intense feelings and emotions into your writing, ascribing them to characters, greatly enhances the energy of your narratives.
The socialization process we experienced as children teaches us to control and suppress intense emotions and feelings to prevent us from acting out in ways we should not. As a maturing writer you must now learn to be a be clear-eyed observer of your own raw emotions and feelings even as you control them. As a maturing writer you must be a clear-eyed observer of others and the way they express and act out emotions and feelings.
One approach toward this objective is to free write about recent feelings you have had and how you really felt and what you really would have done if there was no chance of getting into trouble for it. Then write a story about a fictional character who has a specific feeling you have had and acts on it without control.
Recall a specific situation that evoked strong emotions and capture words that describe and are associated with those emotions.
Examine the nature of the feelings associated with the situation and don’t worry about whether the feelings should be considered appropriate or inappropriate.
Then using the structured format of haiku, write a series of poems exploring those feelings.
Recall a specific situation that evokes strong emotions and then free write for 10 minutes about the emotions and feelings you associate with the situation.
Examine the nature of the feelings and don’t worry about whether the feelings were appropriate or not.
Then draft a story synopsis in which characters experience similar emotions and act based on those feelings.
Recall a specific situation that caused strong emotions and write down words that are associated with those feelings.
Examine the emotions and don’t worry about if there were appropriate or inappropriate.
Then write a song using a ballad structure that explores those feelings and actions that result from them.
Recall a specific situation that involved strong feelings and free write for 10 minutes about those emotions.
Don’t worry about whether they were appropriate or inappropriate but rather explore the feelings themselves.
Then create character sketches that describe characters who are involved in a situation involving similar emotions and how they feel and react to the situation.
Recall a specific situation that evoked strong feelings and then free write for 10 minutes.
Explore the emotions and don’t worry about the question of whether they were appropriate.
Then draft a biographical excerpt written in third-person that recounts the situation, the experience of the feelings, and the actions and consequences that arose from them.
Be honest both about the feelings themselves and the consequences.