writing exercises

there are three main types of useful writing exercises for intermediate and advanced students – short writing, daily writing and long (academic/creative) writing. for beginners, it is useful to do basic journaling to practice pronouns, verbs and vocabulary. this is not useful for non-beginners as it’s neither challenging nor good practice for more complex structures. the exercises here are all for intermediate and advanced students as “what did you do today?” is really the only question a beginner needs for daily exercises.

short writing

the idea behind short writing exercises comes from creative writing. i have used them for many years as a way to get students to stop emotionally connecting with their writing – to write about something quickly and effectively without caring about the topic. the prompts are usually meaningless and the idea is to write between 250 (for early-intermediate students) and 2000 (for very advanced students) for each. to begin, take a minute or two to reflect on the prompt then start writing. it doesn’t matter what you say – the content isn’t important. just say something and make it flow naturally. do as many exercises as you like. the prompts are vague enough that you can repeat them and have completely different results.

ready to try some short prompts?

it’s also a great idea to do shorter, one-minute writing exercises i call “quick-writing”. want to try some quick prompts, too, while you’re here?

daily writing

as a language learner or a writer, it is important to write every day. that doesn’t mean “i will write a thousand words every day so saturday morning i will write 7000 words”. it actually means sitting at your keyboard for an hour or to each twentyfour-hour period and pounding out some words. if you only write 200 words, that’s fine. skipping days, though, that’s like missing a dose of a useful medicine. improvement comes from sustained effort, not periods of intense work mixed with breaks. when i first began teaching language and writing, the most common questions i got were about daily writing – “how many days off can i take a week?” and “but i don’t know what to write about!”. the answer to the first is zero. write at least a little every day. for intermediate students, i recommend aiming for about 500 a day on average. for advanced students, between 1000 and 2500 a day is a better target. if you have an emergency and you can’t write, ok. but don’t plan to take a break just because you don’t feel like it. learning a language is hard work and requires commitment. if you don’t want to learn it, that’s up to you. but don’t half-ass it. the second question (the implied question is “but what do i write about?” for those who will tell me i didn’t word it as a question earlier) is answered by these daily prompts. this is a list of several potential questions or topics for each day of the month. that doesn’t mean you have to write about all of them – actually, it doesn’t mean you have to do them on the days they are assigned to. if you like structure and planning, treat it as an assignment. if you want more flexibility, pick and choose what you want and move them around as desired. this is a starting place, not a target.

here’s a plan that i have found works well for many students. print the list of daily prompts so you have it on paper. then take a few highlighters and go to work on it. let’s assume you have five colors – yellow, pink, blue, green and orange (the colors don’t matter and you could do this with symbols and a pencil for the same result but i find colors are better motivation and just look cuter). read each of the questions for topic content. make a yellow mark by the ones you find really interesting and think you’d enjoy writing. make an orange mark by the ones you are confused by and that will take a lot of research and study to make work but you think might be worth the effort. now go back to the beginning. make a green mark by all the ones you think will be easy to write, a blue mark by the ones that will be average and a pink mark by the ones that will be difficult. of course, these will completely depend on your interests, your level of writing and your background. if you studied one of the hard sciences, scientific and logical topics might feel far easier. if you studied history, social science topics might be easier and science ones either uninteresting or very hard. take a pen and cross off all the ones you don’t want to write. next, if you are particularly into planning, assign yourself a specific prompt for each day. if you’d rather make your choice in the moment, now you have a quick way to figure out which one you feel like – am i up for a real challenge today? do i have time to do some research or only time to write? am i really awake or too tired to do something that complex? learning a language is a mixture of rigid commitment and flexibility. do what works for you.

let’s take a look at the current daily prompts.

academic & creative writing

as a college instructor, academic and creative writing have always been a huge part of my life and i have seen first-hand the benefit of that type of rigorous exercise on students both in serious writing programs and language learning classes. this is specifically for advanced students who already have a good level of english but want to improve. if you have difficulty with conjunctions and verb conjugation, this is not a good use of your time and you should work on less formal and complex daily exercises until you have mastered sentence structure or you will find yourself annoyed and confused trying to write in a more formal style. academic writing doesn’t mean it has to be an exhaustive level of depth or explanation but it does imply a single topic and strict formal writing. creative writing is more flexible but it is again meant to be an extended piece of writing on a single theme or story. the benefit is that you get to expand on what you are writing and explore the idea in depth.

i would suggest treating these exercises either as supplements to or replacements for daily writing. if you have lots of time, you can do your regular daily writing and add academic or creative work. if you only have a few hours to spend, you can do these instead some days. it may take you more than a single day to write each of the answers – it may take you a week if you want to dive deeper. treat each as a college paper and thoroughly organize your ideas before writing. i suggest a length of at least 2000 words. as with my regular college classes, i don’t believe in maximums but if you want a good guideline, between two and four thousand words is a good average length to aim for. academic and creative writing is usually seen as the goal or measure of successful completion of language learning – it’s the point where you stop being an advanced student and start actually living in your new language. try not to worry about that. don’t wonder if you’re ready. just give it a try and see what the result is.

and don’t be afraid of corrections. it is fairly usual for me to offer five or more corrections or suggestions for each sentence of a piece of writing even for my native-speaking students so when you get a piece of writing back with lots of edits, it’s important not to be discouraged. that doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a language learner or a writer. it means the instructor thinks you’re good enough at the language to understand that level of editing and aim for perfection. don’t forget. perfect isn’t a place. it’s a direction. it’s something you walk in the direction of but never achieve. after decades of professional, published writing in various disciplines, i have never written a perfect piece of writing and i’m certain i never will. i’ve never read one. i don’t think they exist. your next piece of writing can be better than your last. this isn’t math – only in the simplest questions is there a single completely right or wrong answer. language is an art and it is continuously evolving. the important part is to keep working at it.

take some time to work on some long writing.

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