26 Apr

Setting Limits

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Prompt, Writing Exercises

Limitations can be liberating.  I know it sounds like a contradiction, but hear me out.  Sometimes having too many choices can be paralyzing and the best thing we can do for our writing is to set some limits.  To that end, here are a few exercises that help me keep those pesky choices in check.

Minus an “E”:  Inspired by Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E” in this exercise I challenge you to write for 15 minutes and the only limitation is you cannot use the letter “E.”  For variations on this assignment, choose a different vowel (no fair choosing “Y”) and write for 15 minutes without that vowel instead.

The idea here is that by limiting which vowels you can use, you have to stop and really think about each word you choose.  It exercises your brain in a way that regular writing doesn’t.  Sure, you might not produce a work of genius with this exercise, but it trains you to think about word choice and you’ll start seeing the results in your writing in general.

Single Syllables:  Another exercise I learned from a favorite writing teacher is to write for 15 minutes using only one-syllable words.  Not only does it make you stop and choose your words carefully, but by using only one-syllable words you’ll infuse your work with energy and punch that you don’t get from words with multiple syllables.

Sometimes when I feel like a piece I’m writing needs more punch, I’ll go back and rewrite a section, trying to use more one-syllable words.  The change in the energy never fails to amaze me.

What do you think?  Do you think you need to set some limits in your writing?  If so, what tricks have you used that work?


Comments on this post

  1. The Red Angel says:

    Seeing that what I love about writing is the fact that there are no limits and you can use the power of words to create anything you want, I'm not too big on putting limits on writing.

    Nevertheless, I do think it is an interesting exercise–to see what you can do when you DO make limits for yourself.



    1. Caroline Starr Rose says:

      We did the single syllable exercise at a recent SCBWI Schmooze Night. Really good way to push your mind to work differently.

      1. E.J. Wesley says:

        I think limits can be very important, especially in the drafting stage of things. It's very easy to write within a boundless playground, but it often doesn't yield as much in the way of quality. I think heeding a basic word-count structure (for the entire story) is a good place to start. That way your debut YA novel doesn't end up being a 150,000 word monster that has to undergo radical surgery in order to meet the publishing ride requirements. (So to speak.)

        I so couldn't do that second challenge, btw! 🙂


        1. Shirley Wells says:

          I've done the single syllable exercise. And yes, it does force the mind to work harder. Other than that, I'm not a great believer in putting limits in place.

          1. Gabriela Pereira says:

            Looks like there aren't many votes in favor of setting limits, which is interesting because all writing is, in a sense, a way of setting limits. Every time you make a choice in your writing, you're essentially setting a limit that will shape the writing that comes after.

            In that regard, I love limiting my writing because writing with no limits to me is like the equivalent of staring at the blank page. Sure, there are infinite possibilities but it's only in limiting those choices that I am able to start writing and create a story.

            1. Ghenet Myrthil says:

              I've done the one syllable exercise. I think I learned it from one of the teachers we both had. 🙂 I remember it being challenging but fun. I don't normally set limits like that in my writing.

              1. Najela says:

                That one syllable exercise sounds fun.

                1. J.C. Martin says:

                  I'm trying to do this post without writing 'E'. D'oh! Anyway, in my own writing, I try to limit my utilisation of "and", "as" and "then". D'oh again! 😉

                  1. Rachel Searles says:

                    Yes! Sometimes I get overwhelmed by writing because it seems like there are an infinite number of choices. These exercises sound good, thanks for sharing!

                    1. Gabriela Pereira says:

                      Ghenet–Yes! The one-syllable exercise came from one of the teachers we both had. 🙂

                      J.C.–Your post rocks and it made me giggle. Nice one!

                      1. Kerryn Angell says:

                        Like you say, every time you come up with an idea or take your story down a certain path you are limiting yourself in a way. It's really all about turning 'limit' into a positive word.

                        I first realised how freeing limits can be when came up with a short story idea from just a few web search terms. You can be inspired by anything but one way to make it fun is to build a mind map of all the words that spark something with you. With this map you can limit yourself to a few words to include in your WIP, build a new idea or develop character or setting.

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