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Tip: Writing Exercise from John Gardner

Slushpile favorite Mike Magnuson reminded us of the grace, insight, and knowledge John Gardner poured into the pages of The Art of Fiction. When I was re-reading the wonderful book, I came across an interesting exercise to hone your writing skill.

First, however, here’s a quote from Gardner: “Every true apprentice writer has, however he may try to keep it secret even from himself, only one major goal: glory. The shoddy writer wants only publication. He fails to recognize that almost anyone willing to devote between twelve and fourteen hours a day to writing–and there are many such people–will eventually get published. But only the great writer will survive–the writer who fully understands his trade and is willing to take the time and necessary risks.”

So in that spirit, of learning the craft, and continuing to learn the craft, here’s an interesting exercise. It may seem elementary at first, but try it a couple of times and you’ll feel your writing muscles straining as sure as if you just benched 200 pounds in the gym.

Take a simple event, such as a man getting off a bus, trips and falls, then looks around in embarrassment and sees a woman smiling. Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting in five completely different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc). Make sure the styles are radically different; otherwise, the exercise is wasted.