Nonfiction Writing exercises

Life before…air conditioning

This exercise was created by Lane Filler, at the time a columnist for the Spartanburg Herald Journal. Today he is a Newsday columnist.

As temperatures soar throughout much of the U.S. and our air conditioners crank out that awesome cold air providing a beautiful 72 degree temperatures indoors, it is interesting to reminisce…

Remember back to a time when you were a child on a HOT day without any air conditioning. What did you do to beat the heat? What did you enjoy about those days? Try to remember and describe not only your actions, but your feelings too.


Choosing the right space for a group workshop

The workshop space is an important component to creating an atmosphere that encourages creative energy as well as a since of group interaction and community. In our own workshops, we have found that some specifics of the room set-up has made a big difference in the way the participants are able to interact as well as its impact on the overall feel of the workshop.

The Room– Ideally, the room is large enough to accommodate your group, but small enough so that the group takes up the majority of the room’s space. Windows, paintings or other art decor on the walls are all components of the room that promote a creative workshop feel.

The Tables– We have found that setting the tables up either in a circle or a U-shape works very well. Participants are able to look at each-other throughout icebreakers as well as during the sharing of their writing.

The Board– Ideally, there is somewhere in the room to hang a poster board (or write on a dry-erase or chalk board) the prompt, so that participants may refer to it throughout their writing.

A few specifics– During out workshops, we have set name tents up in front of each participant, so that other participants may easily read his or her name as well as stick-on name tags. We also have provided the participants with light snacks (coffee and bagels).


Typical Format for Group LW Workshop

Here is the typical format for a workshop done with a group of people (8-16 people). There is no perfect or correct way, but this is what has worked best for us. This information can be used as a resource for guest writers to provide guidelines for a the structure of a session. Remember, you know your group better than we do!

1. The moderator introduces the writer. We recommend having a separate moderator and writer (person providing instructions for writing activity). Moderator can answer questions, and assist anyone with writing or obstacles during workshop.

2. The writer introduces him or herself. Generally, the writer gives an introductory anecdote or background to the writing activity. He or she may also begin by providing some information about themselves to allow the group to get to know them better. Writers sometimes discuss how they started writing and their area of expertise.

3. The writer introduces the writing exercise (and, possibly, how he or she came up with that exercise.) The writer may have to explain the exercise a number of times. He or she should also warn the group that they will have the opportunity to share their work with the group when they are done. No one likes surprises when it comes to speaking in front of a group. Warn them in advance and keep it optional!

4. The rest of the workshop is a balance between private writing time and more expressive work time. Generally, this occurs in about 5 minute intervals. Therefore the pattern resembles something like this: individuals are given a prompt (or part of a prompt), they write privately, and then they share what they have written.

* The moderator should be aware that when the first three participants have finished, he or she needs to start wrapping up that segment of the exercise. If too many people have finished and their attention is drifting, it is can become disruptive. It is okay to stop the others when they are not yet finished. We think of this as leaving them a little bit hungry for more!

5. Invite participants to read what they have written or offer to read what a participant has written for them. Different people are comfortable with different things, so asking, “Do you want to read or do you want me to read for you?” works well. If people read, comment on it! Point out what is compelling. Encourage others to comment on what other people have written. But make sure only positive feedback is given.

6. Continue with the balance of private writing time and expressive work time. Offer another part of the exercise or give them a small new exercise. Some workshop sessions may be based on one prompt with many parts, while other workshop sessions may consist of smaller independent exercises or increasingly difficult versions of the same prompt. This follows with the balance of talk, write, talk, write. Humor and group interaction are extremely effective as well as variation of activity.

If you lead a LW workshop, then please let us know what works for you and your group. You can also allow us to keep track of workshops using our survey here.