by Daphne Gray-Grant
Word games will sharpen your writing skills for the serious work you have to perform.
Can you recall being a little kid and making mashed potato volcanoes, with gravy taking a starring role as lava? Green beans made perfect swords, broccoli stood in for trees and two strategically placed green olives and a slice of red pepper turned a cheese melt into a happy face. Tons of fun, remember?
Okay, well, I'm not going to encourage you to start messing around with your food again. But I do suggest you take that same playful, eyes-wide-open attitude that kids display while eating and turn it in another direction. In short, I want you to play with your words.
Words are the building blocks of writing, and while we need to do serious work with them -- like write brochures, produce web copy and churn out reports -- we can also lean from playing a few games with them. You know, take play seriously -- like kids do.
Today, I'm going to suggest two activities for you. Both are interesting and fun, but they also have a serious purpose.
Game Number 1: Try to produce a piece of writing without once using the verb "to be." That means editing out all of the following:
I first heard about this exercise years ago, but Paris-based copywriter John Forde (whom I interview in my book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better) recently jogged my memory about it. Avoiding the verb "to be" forces you to select more interesting lively verbs -- ones that help your readers form visual images in their minds' eyes. And this leads to more compelling writing.
Game Number 2: Can you tell an entire story in a single sentence? Apparently, yes you can! And I'm grateful to person who alerted me to the website One Sentence Stories. As its name suggests, the site challenges readers to tell a true story (no fiction permitted) in a single sentence. The result? Limits inspire creativity. Some examples from the site:
- It was one of those exams that you absolutely must pass if you want to continue in the program, and I failed the set-your-alarm-clock-properly portion.
- As you were breaking up with me, all I could think about were those mornings when you compared the Pop-Tarts and gave me the one with more frosting.
- I married my husband on our first date, but it has taken me more than 5 years to decide what color to paint our dining room.
Fun, eh? Here’s one I’ve made up:
- Our four heartbeats quickened when the ultrasound technician turned to me and said, "Hey, you have three munchkins in there." (Yep, I'm the mother of triplets.)
Obviously, these exercises are mere games. But just as chess or bridge will hone your mind, so too, word games will help sharpen your writing skills for the serious work you have to perform. Write without the verb "to be" and you will gain practice at finding interesting, more engaging verbs. Write a one-sentence story and you will learn how to go for the literary jugular -- by being pithy, concise and attention-grabbing.
Okay, enough reading. Go out there and play!
(Thanks for the image to Ridiculous Human Things.)
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.