for writers and readers….

A simple writing exercise that packs a punch FROM THE ARCHIVES

I’m recovering from two total replacement knee operations and everything is going well. A bionic new me will be sashaying out in the summer, maybe even doing a bit of dance,  although the lack of a go-faster switch is a bit of a design fault. At the moment though I’m going through the weary stage where it’s two slow steps forward and one step backwards (not literally) and I thought I would take this opportunity to publish on Fridays some of my favourite posts from the past. To paraphrase BBC radio: this is your chance to read again… (and I’m not using the words recycle or repeat.)

penVarying the length of a sentence is very simple device that can add flavour and texture to your writing. It can also add to the atmosphere you want to create.

1) Describe a room, real or imaginary in just one sentence using as many words as you can – count the words afterwards, see how many you can fit in while still making sense and obeying the usual rules of English.

 Tip: lists can be useful. Before you start think about the words we use to link parts of a sentence such as although, unless, so, but, while, because…

Here’s an example of the kind of thing I have in mind. (It’s 56 words long, but you can probably do much better – if in need of inspiration pick up any Dickens’ novel. He’ll show you the way.)

Example: long

The gilt picture frames that decorated the walls of the guest bedroom were set on fire by the early morning sunlight shining through the stained glass window and brought the collection of oil paintings to new, vibrant life while transforming the swathes of muslin draping the four poster bed into an opal waterfall of translucent colour.

The result is a layering of images, none of which stand out, but put together give the impression of a room that is rich, crowded and colourful.

Now describe the same room, but this time no sentence can be more than six words – it can have fewer words, but not more.

Example: short

The light shone through stained glass. The oil paintings came alive. Dawn set the picture frames alight. Ancient gilt turned into gold. Muslin turned into water.

Each sentence is a small, clearly defined picture. In this example there’s rhythm which gives the scene a memorable elegance, but short sentences could just as easily produce a stark, uncomfortable feeling. Sentence length is part of the writer’s toolkit . What you should avoid is sentence after sentence of the same length and the same structure because the lack of variety is tedious to read. Pretty soon the reader will switch off.

Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs are often used to give the sensation of speed. Brevity is also very good at conveying powerful emotion. Think of the difference between She died last Tuesday evening after a long illness and the succinct She’s dead.

Do the same as before  – one long sentence followed by a paragraph of very short sentences – but this time tackle a more challenging subject:

  • someone recently bereaved

  • a man running away from an angry mob

  • A winter afternoon in a care home

If you enjoy this exercise there’s a good chance you’ll like  Back to CREATIVE WRITING School – 30 exercises, 33,000 words, available now as an ebook and in paperback. US Amazon UK Amazon 

photo credit: Studying via photopin (license)

7 comments on “A simple writing exercise that packs a punch FROM THE ARCHIVES

  1. A.K.Andrew @artyyah
    February 6, 2015

    Excellent exerciseBridget. So sort to hear about yoursurgerybut hope that you haves speedy recovery with much benefit from the surgery Takecare:-)

    • bridget whelan
      February 6, 2015

      Thanks for your good wishes and I’m glad you like the exercise. Take good care yourself

  2. Norah
    February 6, 2015

    An interesting exercise. We’re usually told to cut out, rather than add, so it’s interesting to do that first up.
    I hope you recover quickly and are soon taking three steps forward to none back! (Is that the quickstep?)

    • bridget whelan
      February 6, 2015

      I have no idea what the quickstep actually is – my references to dancing are pure fiction! Hope you find the writing exercise helpful – I love it.

  3. Danny Kemp
    February 6, 2015


    • bridget whelan
      February 6, 2015

      Yep! My life is ruled by exercises at the moment and none of them are the writing sort. But it is all in a good cause and I am so grateful for 1) medical science and 2) the NHS

  4. Owen Howard
    February 16, 2015

    Saved like a favorite, fantastic internet site!

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