The Child Exercise

Let me tell you about one of my favorite writing exercises: the child exercise. Maybe it could be compared to outlining—I wouldn’t know, I’m still learning that method—but I find it a powerful tool to focus on content while disciplining my words.

The way I practice it, I might allow up to three sentences to a metaphoric page. Then I typically allow myself up to twenty or twenty-two “pages,” keeping the text to roughly the same length per page. And, maybe it’s overly detailed of me, but I mean that: length, not word count. I find a bit of visual rest in having comparable pieces of my literary puzzle.

Then I can play around with the thought structure, moving stuff hither and yon however much I like. If it’s an actual project I might want to sell, I try to check notes to see if I got all the major points, images, or references.

Letting a few sentences stand on their own power is, to me, a beautiful, poignant thing. Akin to poetry, it allows words to be bared rather than buried.

It necessitates an intimate knowledge of one’s audience. I call this the child exercise because I typically use it with my children in mind. Are these words they would understand when read aloud? Are they readable and for what ages? Are there words you’d need to unsay later? Are these words as weighty as they can be, as you are investing so much in them? Can they grow with a child?

Is there flow, consistency, and art within the simplicity? Or is it thunky, condescending, or pedantic? Can it gracefully lead and/or accompany the reader?

The discipline lies in relying on words. Some might say it’s a style of brevity in itself, and maybe it is, but it can also be a tool, practice, and exercise to get away from yourself and onto the words and the page. It’s a chance to break away from pretension and the awkwardness of self-consciousness to mold a thought or progression onto paper.

I know such a writing exercise probably isn’t for everybody, but maybe it is for you.

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