Don’t be Afraid to get it Wrong – a Writing Exercise

photo by Greg Hogan

by Lynda Nash

When teaching beginners, I find that the biggest block to their creativity is the fear of not getting their writing right. But no matter how many years you’ve been a writer or how professional you are, nothing – I repeat nothing – goes onto the page perfect the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Writers re-write, that’s what we do, and it’s all part of the procedure. Better to scrawl several sentences that are unconnected or ill-conceived than to stare at a blank page waiting for perfection to spring from your fingertips!

One area that proves most troublesome for new writers is Character Description. Not only are students reluctant to write what could turn out to be, in their words, ‘crap’, but they are also afraid that how they describe someone else – real or fictional – will be a reflection of their own character. But now I seem to have found a solution: seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

It was desperation that led me to this exercise. One day I asked a class of six adults to describe a ‘wealthy woman who likes to keep up with the latest fashion’. A collective groan reverberated around the room. I said, ‘Okay…what about describing a young hooligan who has just been caught shoplifting?’ More groans.  ‘It’s too hard,’ they said.  ‘We can’t do it.’ We were getting nowhere. Then inspiration dawned – on me anyway.  ‘What about getting the young hooligan to describe the wealthy woman?’ It was worth a try.

And it worked. The fact that the students were seeing through someone else’s eyes freed them to write without fear: if the description was wrong that was the fault of the describing character and not themselves. They were free to use vocabulary and grammar in a different way to how they would normally – because the onus was on someone else. Pieces were short but students were chuffed to have put words on paper. So we did it again but this time with two different characters. Students enjoyed describing by proxy and were on a roll.

I now use this exercise as a way to help my students loosen up at the start of a term, or if I notice they are becoming blocked. Inadvertently they are learning about voice and this can be applied to short stories, micro-fiction and novel writing. So the motto is, if you are afraid of getting the words wrong – then let someone else speak!

About the author

Lynda Nash has written 8 articles for THRESHOLDS

Lynda Nash lives in Caerphilly and teaches Creative Writing and English Language GCSE in community colleges. She is author of Ashes Of A Valleys Childhood (poetry) and Not As Pointless As You Think (short fiction) and is currently working on a novel for her PhD.

3 Responses to "Don’t be Afraid to get it Wrong – a Writing Exercise"

  • dora 02:26 AM 28/4/2011

    Lynda thank you so much! I am one of those writers who expect nothing but perfection on their first draft. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence — who knows how much more I could have written — if only! Fear will only paralyze, stifling creativity from the get-go as you’ve said above and your advice to circumvent it is brilliant. I will definitely give it a try and let you know how I do. Thanks again.

  • MaryODonnell 01:05 PM 16/5/2011

    Good piece and very valuable. I’ll use the idea!

  • […] character do the writing. This method of ‘seeing through someone else’s eyes’ (found in ‘Don’t be Afraid to get it Wrong’) works for describing people and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for narrative too. When […]

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