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How To Write: The Importance of Exercise

Exercising your writing is like exercising your body.

Exercising your writing is like exercising your body.


Imagine you have the goal of running a marathon. What steps would you take to optimize your experience?

Chances are, your goal would be to finish the marathon. You'd want to run the entire 26 miles (42 km).

Let's say that up until this point, you've spent a lot of time eating fast food and sitting on the couch. What are the odds that you're going to finish the marathon? Your odds are poor. Chances are you'll make it a couple of miles before getting winded and doing a face plant on the side of the road.

Now let's say you spend the months leading up to the marathon training. You go to the gym every day and run. You start by running 1 mile the first week, 2 miles the second week, 3 miles the third week, etc.

With time and practice, you attain the stamina and muscular development necessary to complete the marathon. Come the day of the run, you run for the full 26 miles and feel a surge of accomplishment as you cross the finish line.

What does this have to do with writing?

Writing is the same way. Writing effectively is like running a marathon. This isn't exclusive only to novels, however. The length of your writing is irrelevant, whether you're writing a 600-word article or a 60,000 word book. Your writing will always be some length; the fact that it will have length is the constant, not the variable. The variable is the quality. You can have 600 words of crap just as easily as you can have 60,000 words of crap; you can have 600 words of gold just as easily as you can have 60,000 words of gold.

Length is constant, quality is the variable, just like with a marathon. It doesn't matter if you're running 26 miles or 2.6 miles. The healthiness of your body is the variable.

Writing With(out) Purpose

No writing is without purpose.

No exercise is without purpose.

No socializing is without purpose.

The way these three ideas are linked will become clear shortly. There are easily dozens, if not hundreds more ideas we could link, but three will suffice for now.

There exists a tendency for an individual to pursue a goal simply for the tangible reward. In other words, people are prone to ONLY doing things when they know EXACTLY what they're getting out of it. This shortsightedness carries with it at least one catastrophic disadvantage. When an individual ONLY pursues a goal with a tangible end, that individual denies his- or herself the rewards of pursuing it WITHOUT seeing the tangible end.

In other words, doing something for the sake of doing it A) has unexpected rewards, and B) has rewards that are DIFFERENT from the rewards of pursuing it purposefully.

How does this apply to writing?

Writing with purpose is different from writing without purpose. When you're writing with purpose, you have a tangible goal in mind, such as a 600-word article or 60,000 word book. You know what you'll be getting out of the experience when you got into the project. This is a double-edged sword, as you'll see shortly.

When you're writing without purpose, you don't know if you'll get anything out of the experience. Even if there IS something to be gotten out of the experience, your perspective dictates how much. For example, if you finish writing 1000 words without purpose and tell yourself "that was pointless", then you will get nothing. Plus you're lying to yourself. It is impossible to write with nothing to show for it.

Writing with purpose guarantees a reward. Whether or not writing without purpose is a rewarding experience depends entirely on your perspective. But, as was mentioned above, the guaranteed reward of writing with purpose is a double-edged sword. Why? Because while you know that you'll be getting a reward out of the experience (a 600-word article, e.g.) that reward is, at the same time, probably the ONLY reward you'll get out of it.

In other words, writing with purpose can be limiting.

This isn't an absolute rule. If your 600 word article is good enough, unexpected benefits might reveal themselves. You might find that the article transcends its original purpose and can be used in multiple contexts. The more people that can relate to your writing, the better. This is an ideal situation for any writer, with one caveat: it's unlikely that your with-purpose writing will be able to transcend its original purpose if you've been skimping on your without-purpose writing.

To Put It In Context

Going back to the exercise metaphor:

Writing with purpose is like running a marathon.

If you've trained, then you are likely to succeed in your goal.

If you've skipped training, then you are unlikely to succeed in your goal.

With exercise, the benefits of exercising-without-purpose are a bit easier to put into concrete terms. Running regularly, for example, improves circulation and heart health, as well as releasing endorphins (known as the "runner's high"). Lifting weights has the benefit of increasing your strength, with the side benefit of shaping your body in a way that will probably be appealing to the opposite (or same) sex.

Here we truly see the point of doing something for the sake of doing it: on its own, exercising doesn't seem to have any link to socializing. And yet the two are still interconnected. Exercise enough and the opposite (or same) sex might react in an unexpected, positive way. Again, this isn't necessarily a reward that you can predict.

Bear in mind that exercising at the gym doesn't, at face value, carry any guarantee of reward. You can run 5 miles on a treadmill, but chances are nobody is going to come along and give you a ribbon and a pat on the back. Benching more weight than usual doesn't mean people are going to throw confetti in your face. The rewards manifest elsewhere -- through increased strength, increased health, social appeal, and an improvement in general confidence.

Writing is the same. By writing for the sake of writing -- that is, writing without being limited by a reward -- you improve other areas of your life too. Plus, you'll be better equipped to write with purpose. Your 600 word articles will be better because you've taken the time to "exercise" beforehand.

The enterprising reader might be struck with the idea: "if I write 600 word articles over and over again, then I'll get good at writing AND I'll always have a reward".

No, not necessarily. All you've done is gotten good at writing with intention. Yeah, you might have 10 articles at 600 words, but all 10 of those articles could have been better if you'd taken the time to write without intention.

And "your writing could be better" sounds negative, but it's more of a general rule of thumb. Nothing personal. ALL writing could be better. The rule, generally speaking, is: "if it's written, it could be better".

Let's move away from the 'exercise' simile and into another simile to reinforce what's being said here.

Let's say you only speak to people when you have a purpose to be speaking to them. This means you go to the gas station and only speak to the attendant. You go to the bar and only speak to the bartender. You go to the mall and only speak to store employees.

Are you socializing? Yes.

Are you socializing optimally? No.

The relationship between you (a customer) and them (an employee in some capacity) is different from you (as a person) and another person (as a person). There's an extra layer of context which dictates the nature of your interaction and limits the possible outcomes of the relationship.

In the above examples, the "reward" is already known: a transaction. When you approach an employee in a store, you both know that the climax of the relationship is either A) a financial transaction, or B) not a financial transaction. It is generally uncommon to make friends with employees of establishments.

This limitation extends beyond financial affairs. Let's say you only associate with people you meet through other friends. This seems like an active social life, and yet it's still limited: the ONLY people you're able to meet are people to whom you're introduced by your existing friends. If your existing friends are out of the picture, then your ability to meet new people collapses.

Not to mention, you're putting strain on your relationship with your preexisting friends, because the purpose of your friendship is to meet new people. In other words, you're not friends for the sake of being friends.

Now, let's say you go to the mall and approach strangers. You see people who look interesting and approach them simply for the purpose of getting to know them and understanding their experiences. There is no tangible reward -- you're just meeting people for the sake of meeting people.

In effect, you're "exercising" your social skills. Just like with physical exercise, social exercise has a variety of benefits. For example, when you approach random people and talk to them, you undergo a shift in mindset -- you start feeling as though you could talk to anyone. Even though you don't intend to make new friends, you might end up doing just that. Heck, you might approach someone interesting and end up marrying them!

In other words, you didn't approach any stranger with the express intention of marrying them -- that was just a side benefit of exercising your social skills.

Had you approached 100 store employees specifically with marriage in mind, sure -- you might succeed. However it will be a difficult and arduous task, and you may end up being mismatched: because you have no context against which to gauge your partner, you don't know if it's a match made in Heaven or a mismatch made in Hell.

Not to mention, taking the time to exercise your social skills without purpose increases your social skills generally, meaning you'll benefit across the board -- with employees, with friends of friends, with family, with strangers, with coworkers, with bosses, etc.

Writing without purpose works on similar principals. Exercise beforehand and you're better prepared to write with intention.

Exercise for no reason and you're better equipped to exercise with reason.

Socialize for no reason and you're better equipped to exercise with reason.

You could probably impose any number of actions onto the basic formula and see similar results.

Do X for no reason and you'll be better able to do it when there IS a reason.

Writing without purpose is the same as socializing without purpose: the reward is in doing it for its own sake.

Writing without purpose is the same as socializing without purpose: the reward is in doing it for its own sake.

Explore "concrete" ideas as well as abstract ones to give your writing a unique, personal flair.

How to Exercise

Typically this section would be populated with exercises that you can do to improve your writing. This is the usual format.

That seems redundant though. If you want exercises, Google 'writing exercises' and you'll have about a billion at your disposal.

Instead of being given a fish, you're going to learn how to fish.

One common question asked of authors is "where do you get your ideas?".

A popular and cliche phrase is "there's no such thing as a stupid question". That's wrong. There are such things as stupid questions and "where do you get ideas" is one of them.

Let's say you're standing in a room with 10 people.

For the sake of simplicity, let's say all of these people are 25 years old.

All of these 10 people have lived different and unique lives. No two are alike. They've gone to different places and met different people. They all harbor unique opinions and outlooks. As Bill Nye put it so eloquently, "Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don't".

You're standing in a room with a combined 250 years' worth of unique experience. You're telling me that you can be faced with 250 years of human history -- emotion, intellect, opinion, ideas, dreams, fantasies, tragedies, victories, bonds, heartbreak -- and you can't get any ideas? Not one?

For the sake of argument, let's say no -- despite being given 250 years of experience, there's nothing worth writing about. So, step outside.

You find yourself on a planet with 7.5 billion people of varying ages. Even if every single human being in the world was only 1 year old, that's 7.5 billion years' worth of experience from which you're able to draw inspiration.

This doesn't include stories passed down from parents and grandparents who may have passed away. Take into account that people know stories that were told to them by their deceased relatives and that 7.5 billion number increases exponentially.

You're reading this on a computer of some design. This means you have access to the Internet, and therefore access to the sum total of human knowledge. Everything that is known to the human race is available to you.

You can't find inspiration? You need to ask someone where to get ideas? With all due respect, you're not trying very hard.

Exercising your writing skills is easy. Pick a topic and write about it. If you don't know anything about the topic, write about how much you'd like to know about that topic. Do some research and write about the things you learned. Maybe you have an idea that you don't know how to put into words. So write about not being able to put it into words, and write about something like that idea. Or meditate and see what ideas come to you.

And always bear in mind that no writing is fruitless. All writing is rewarding when you look at it the right way.

Anything you can think of can be turned into a writing exercise. Looking at this picture, what do you see? What feelings are evoked? Against what human drama is this image the backdrop?

Anything you can think of can be turned into a writing exercise. Looking at this picture, what do you see? What feelings are evoked? Against what human drama is this image the backdrop?

Stephen King's writing process is basically predicated on "write for the sake of writing".

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