Three unusual exercises to improve your writing

If one of your new year’s resolutions is to hone your composition skills, here are a few ways to help.

It’s January, so naturally we’ve heard a lot about new-year resolutions—not to mention all the advertising for weight-loss programs, gym memberships, and smoking-cessation products.

If one of your resolutions is to improve your writing skills, consider these tried and true writing exercises.

1. Turn your writing process upside down.

Do you plan, outline, and organize before you start writing? Or do you “just write” and put things down without considering how to organize the content?

Whichever you prefer, do the opposite. Try writing without an outline, and see what happens—or vice versa. By simply changing your approach to writing, you may discover a new style or a way to make the process less cumbersome.

2. Write using a different style guide.

Your style guide is like a trusted friend. You know it backward and forward. You rely on it to answer your writing questions.

(When I was studying for my Editor in the Life Sciences certification exam, I actually kept the American Medical Association Manual of Style on my nightstand.)

Well, stand your old friend up, and take a new one to lunch.

Writing with a new style guide can be liberating. You don’t realize how attached you can become to the rules until you decide not to follow them. Sometimes, it’s fun to break a rule—as long as you’re consistent. If you make the switch, do it throughout your prose; conflicting style guides, like contradictory recipes, don’t deliver palatable results.

3. Write something you’ve never written before.

I’ve been a medical writer for 13 years. Until 2011, I had not written a personal narrative since journalism school. Last year, in a fit of writing restlessness, I decided to start my own blog. I could easily write 2,000 words on diagnostic errors, but could I write a blog post? Forty-two posts later, the answer is yes.

Writing for my blog was a struggle at first. I had to find a different, less-formal voice. But after my third post, it became fun and I rediscovered my passion for writing. (Pardon the cliché, but I say that in all seriousness.) It has also improved my medical writing skills by helping me take a less-stifled approach to my work.

Stretch your skills, and write outside your comfort zone. Try technical writing, fiction, screenplays, comic books—anything you haven’t written before.

Readers, do you have any other writing exercises that have helped to improve your skills?

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