Saturday, 26 November 2011

Three Types of Exercise

06:05:00 Posted by Ashley Lister 12 comments

By Ashley Lister

As a teacher and a writer I work with three types of writing exercise.

The first type is the sort used in the classroom. It’s a timed exercise designed to get students writing. These are usually ‘on-demand’ type exercises where students write haikus, limericks, cinquains etc. The purpose of these exercises is to get students familiar with the form being discussed and to garner proof that learning has taken place.

One of the questions I’m encouraged to ask as a teacher is: How do I know learning has taken place? My answer takes the logical solution: If I taught a student how to write a haiku, and they then wrote a haiku, it suggests they’ve learnt how to write haiku.

A couple of my fellow bloggers this week have expressed frustration with the restrictions and artificiality imposed by timed classroom exercises. Whilst the writer in me sympathises with this point of view, I’d still argue that the exercises are useful for the teacher.

From the writer’s perspective, timed classroom exercises work best when they can be recreated at home. That way the writer has the scope to properly use the exercise but without the pressure of meeting unreasonable standards set by peers.

The second type of writing exercise is the sort that’s solely intended to be done at home. For these, in my classes, I’ll give a theme or the opening paragraph to a story and ask learners to create a short piece of fiction to share with the rest of the class the following week.

Last week I used the opening pages from a piece of werewolf fiction I’d written. (One of my students had been asking why I never used my own writing in class – I figured this was the easiest way to address that question). The class’s responses produced a lot of differing results. Few had gone for the traditional approach to telling a werewolf story. One had simply gone to see the latest Twilight film and told me the plot of that movie. Some of the stories were dark – dark even for werewolf stories. Some of them were whimsical. All of them had been written when the writers had the time and enthusiasm to engage with the subject. This level of personal involvement showed in the quality of the writing.

From a writer’s perspective, I think these are the exercises which I prefer. I can do them at my own pace, in my own writing place, and without the pressure demanded by the need for immediate quality results.

The third type, in my mind, is the sort of exercise used for creating fresh ideas. Creating ideas can be daunting for any new writer and these are the sorts of collaborative classroom exercises where we share our suggestions and bounce them off other people in the room. It’s a chance to voice ideas to others, see how they’re received, and to also get an insight into the way peers are thinking. In short: it’s a chance to hear some unusual ideas which can often prove tangentially inspirational.

One of my favourite exercises in this type is adapted from Margaret Geraghty’s The Five Minute Writer. Learners are expected to spend five minutes compiling a short list in response to the question: What does it feel like to…?

My personal responses to this included items such as:

What does it feel like to run a marathon?

What does it feel like to lick a hedgehog?

What does it feel like to taste an emotion?

During classes this week learners came up with such diverse responses as:

What does it feel like to be dead?

What does it feel like to be truly loved?

What does it feel like to be high?

Your exercise for this Saturday morning, should you wish to participate, is to produce five original responses to that question: What does it feel like to…?

I’d be interested to see your answers below. And if I don’t respond immediately today, it’s because I’m up in Kendal reading poetry at the Brewery Arts Centre ( . If I get a chance to see you there it would be great.



Lindsay said...

what does it feel like to be made of cheese?

what does it feel like to be a raincloud?

what does it feel like to be a zombie?

what does it feel like have a broom tied to your arse?

what does it feel like to have box named Gerald?

Ashley R Lister said...

Each of those could produce a wealth of story ideas. I keep looking at that first one and thinking of Pop Art by Joe Hill - one of my favourite shorts from this century.

As you're a mother, I suspect you can already answer your fourth idea without needing to think about it :-)


Lindsay said...

I just looked Joe Hill up on Wikipedia, and discovered that his parents Mr and Mrs King named their kid Joe. Joe King. Fnar. Poor bloke. No wonder he changed it.

Ashley R Lister said...

His brother (Juan) got a lot more schtick :-)


J said...

i prefer type two option - half the story is already created. lazy, maybe but interesting to see/hear how the story can be manipulated in a variety of ways.

1/ what does it feel like to be run over?
2/ what does it feel like to internally combust?
3/ what does it feel like to jump out of a plane at 20,000ft without a parachute?
4/ what does it feel like to be on the front line on a battlefield?
5/ what does it feel like to be buried up to your neck in a fire-ant hill?

yes, it would seem by my five choices i have a rather perverse mind.

Ashley R Lister said...


The exciting thing about these choices is that they lend themselves to description which would force the writer to establish the physicality of the fictional world being created.

Thank you for sharing some thoughts from your perverse mind.


Anonymous said...

What does it feel like to explode?

What does it feel like to be young?

What does it feel like to run away?

What does it feel like to be cold?

What does it feel like to be touched?

I'll have fun with these whilst Lara is busy conferencing...

Good luck tonight mate, wish we could have made it.


Ashley R Lister said...


It would have been great to see you at the event - it was a pleasure to be there.

The run away option sounds like an intriguing starting point for a novel. I wonder if my next story should start from somewhere like that?


Lara Clayton said...

What does it feel like to be a cardboard box?

What does it feel like be a pillow?

What does it feel like to be a zebra in captivity?

What does it feel like to be a stray cat?

What does it feel like to be planet Earth?

Great exercise, Ash. Really got me thinking - might try to make one of these into a poem for the next event.
Lar x

Ashley R Lister said...

Planet earth with a smoker's cough, an allergic reaction to the human infestation its currently suffering, and flicking through a cosmetic surgeon's brochure on 'depleted ozone layer re-enhancement'.

I can see that working as a strong poem.

Good ones,


vicky ellis said...

I'm catching up on the blog today. I also want to run away with the werewolf story. I do like the idea of taking someone else's intro and running with it.


What does it feel like to have no toenails?
What does it feel like to have 8 legs?
What does it feel like to be a naked tree on a bleak moor?
What does it feel like to turn to liquid?
What does it feel like to be bright purple with stars for eyes?
What does it feel like to

Ashley R Lister said...

The werewolf story is a fun one. I enjoyed reading the responses I got. You've seen the link on FaceBook if you want to see how it goes. If you want to see the story in its entirety, let me know.

And I love the physicality of your responses to these prompts. I can see any of these working for your style of writing.