Elizabeth: What I Learned About Writing from Random Word Improv

RandomWordsInAHeartLast September we started our weekly Friday Writing Sprint posts as a brief way to take a break from thinking about the craft of writing and just spend a few minutes actually writing.  The posts provided accountability (those who chose to could post the results of their writing sprints), motivation to get some words on the page, and helped make the normally solitary process of writing feel a little bit more like a community event.

Over time, the posts evolved into our current Random Word Improv exercises.  Sometimes we start with a set of truly random words, sometimes with a particular theme, and occasionally with a random phrase thrown in for good measure.    Regardless of what we start with the goal is the same:  to provide a creative writing jump-start.   It’s a way to have some fun playing with words without the (often) paralyzing thinking about goal, motivation, conflict, character arc, and all those other craft elements that can sometimes get in the way of just trying to tell a story.

You can see some of our recent improv results here, here, and here.

I look forward to the Friday posts and the chance to play with the story that I’ve been building with all of those random words.   I find myself spending far more time thinking about my “random” story and adding bits and pieces to it, than I do t my “real” work-in-progress which, sadly, has been languishing in recent weeks.

I thought about that and came up with a few reasons why that is:

Play time

Telling a story with the random words each Friday doesn’t feel like work, it feels like fun.  That’s true, in part, because I’m approaching it as something fun that I want to do, rather than something that I have to do in order to reach “The End.”  Treating it as play instead of work takes away the pressure to produce and leaves the fun part, the actual joy of creating something out of nothing.    My challenge now is to take that feeling of play time and figure out how to apply it to my current WIP.

Short term

I don’t like my improv characters Cassie and Nicolai better than my Regency characters Michael and Abigail or my contemporary couple Maddie and Sam, but they’re more fun to work with because I’m only trying to move them through a single scene (or piece of a scene).  Over time those scenes may build into a complete story, but for each Friday, I have a short term goal that can be achieved in a few hundred words or so.  I’m not trying to write War and Peace, I’m just trying to figure out how to incorporate as many of the random words as possible into a cohesive piece.  Being able to achieve that goal keeps the writing process fun and makes me want to keep writing.  There’s no reason I can’t look at my own WIP in the same way.  I may be running a marathon there, not a sprint, but there is no reason I can’t break it into smaller, more manageable pieces, rather than keeping my eyes on that distant mile marker.


Friday’s random words and random themes also provide an opportunity to play with different writing voices and genres.   Results in our comments section have included fairy tales, mysteries, historical, paranormal, noir, dystopian, and more.    Writing something just for fun can be very freeing and can actually help spark new ideas and new ways of looking at other pieces we’re working on.  I’m thinking of using Friday’s random words, along with the current scene I’m (not) working on in my WIP to see if I can spark some creative ways to move the story forward.


One of the biggest reasons why my improv writing feels so much easier than my WIP writing is that on Fridays, I’m not focused on getting my story (or scene) perfect; instead I’m just focused on getting it on the page.  I typically look at the words, brainstorm phrases or sentences or bits of dialog that incorporates them, and then I figure out how to link it all together.  I’m not drawing a conflict box or thinking about writing rules, I’m just playing with words.  My internal editor is silent and perfection isn’t even on the radar.  That’s definitely something I’m struggling to figure out how to do with my WIP.

So, have you given Random Word Improv a try?  If so, do you think it has made any difference in your writing?   If not, what other ways have you found to add a little fun to your writing practice?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: What I Learned About Writing from Random Word Improv

  1. You’re right! I think it takes a huge chunk of stress to perform off and is a lot more freeing and fun. It also feels like I accomplished something when I am done. Sometimes the words and combinations are so strange… So it activates the “puzzle-solving” gene as well as actively engages creative mode. It also gives you a variety of words, some of don’t normally use and some of which you might not have come across on a “normal” day… Finding ingenious ways to use them freshes things up and energizes it it new ways. Never boring and the variety of stories everyone comes up with- even from the “themed” group of words is amazing.

    I was hoping to be awesome and generate an outline for this book, even if it wasn’t too detailed to make it easier to take it in small chunks like this, but alas my book only wants to work itself out a section at a time and I fear a repeat performance of epic failure looming on the horizon. Each one of my projects has had some horrible inherent problems from “winging it” and I was hoping to do better. Arggggggh!

    It’s funny you should bring this up today, because I was just contemplating the same thing last night and wondering if I should find and use a random word generator to kick start me on some sprints each day. At least I’ll get something interesting down, even if it’s got terminal problems.

    I think pressure to perform and performance anxiety cause us a lot of problems and this seems to be a way to work around it a bit. Weird, funny, and true.

  2. I actually find the writing sprints more challenging than my WIP, because I know where my WIP is supposed to be going (execution, alas, is another matter), but the random writing sprints are another ballpark altogether. I feel like I have to figure out the whole goal, motivation, and conflict, and do it in 200 words with the added challenge of using those specific words. Yikes! [Panic sets in.] However, I had an extremely enjoyable and fulfilling sprint a while back when I conjured up a magician whose magic always goes wrong. I liked our hero, I liked our heroine, and it made me think they might be worthy of a longer treatment at some point. So I’m very pleased about that. And I’ll continue to try to contribute to the sprints, because I think they’re a great exercise.

    • Kay – yay for conjuring up a character in your writing sprints that you want to see more of. Glad you’re finding it to be a good exercise.

  3. I enjoy the random word ones the best, especially when there are some left-field selections in the mix. There’s something very stimulating about figuring out how to blend the mixture together into a (hopefully) coherent whole. I find the themed ones take me longer, probably because I don’t feel satisfied unless I try to tweak the theme a little (or a lot). I’ve been short of time on Fridays lately, and the next couple of months is not looking any better, but like Kay, I’ll continue to try to contribute because the sprints are great fun and they keep my creative wheels turning, no question.

    And I love to read the other stories. Amazing the different directions we all take from the same starting point. That’s the best bit.

    • Jilly – that’s interesting. I also find the the themed words to be a little more challenging. Mostly because I try to figure out how to use them in unexpected ways. Glad you’re continuing to contribute – you’ve had some great entries.

  4. I love ’em! I’m such an enthusiastic fan. The thing I love best is when two random words bump into each other, and suddenly there’s a character in my head. It’s like watching the coolest pool shot ever, and every time a ball bumps into another, some new detail of the story comes out.

    I’m really loose about how I use them. I don’t push to use all of the words, usually. And I rarely get a full story, let alone a full scene. I’m just happy with a character sketch or even a nice sentence in the middle of whatever mess I’m writing.

    Those little accomplishments make me feel a lot more confident when I tackle my own writing, and more likely to follow when something random comes up in my mind.

    Also, I think showing these little fun blips that aren’t supposed to be perfect is great practice for showing longer pieces to people. I get stage fright, even with these little drabbles, but doing it anyway helps with a desensitization process (maybe?).

    Even better, it’s so much fun to see what everyone else has come up with! A little spark of sexy, or adventure, or mystery to carry into my weekend (-:.

    I’ve said it before, and I think I need to say it again: I’m so grateful that you do these for us, Elizabeth.

    BTW, Penny, David Bowie (who got the technique from William Burroughs, IIRC, and Burroughs probably got it from someone else) used a clip and throw sort of technique. He’d either write or take some words down, clip them out of the paper, and then throw them up in the air and see where they’d landed. He’d allow himself to rearrange them, and see what accidental meaning came up.

    I’m not very self-motivating so I don’t do this myself. But, if I were the type to do it, I think I’d copy (or screenshot) a page from a book that was resonating with me, blowing it up. Then I’d cut out ten nouns, ten verbs, ten adjectives and (if they had it) ten adverbs. Stick ’em in a hat, and draw them out one by one, maybe taking notes about the thoughts and images that come to me when I draw them out, or when I put them down next to each other.

    If you keep them in their own envelopes (nouns, verbs, etc.), then eventually (after 10 tries) you’d have a hundred random words in each envelope to choose from.

    Which looks like a great idea on paper, but I’m not sure if I’d ever do it. #1, finding envelopes. #2 getting things printed out in the same time/space continuum as I had scissors. Defeated by stationery, yet again! Ah, what a cluttered life I lead!

    • P.S. Sometimes I wind up doing these exercises out of a sense of duty — I must support this, because I love it. But 95 percent of the time, I wind up loving it by the time I’m 20 words into the exercise. (-: Just like other kinds of exercise, isn’t it? Just gotta get started.

    • I agree, Michaeline. Seeing how the random words can connect and then trigger a whole story/sketch/scene really is fun. I am always surprised when a group of words that seem like they have nothing in common with each other fall into place. Glad you’re enjoying the sprints too.

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