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Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Writing Workbooks  >  Multiple Skill Levels
Exercises in Discovering a Subject, Storytelling, and Nature Writing
By Sherry Simpson

Exercise On Discovering A Subject

Write, as Annie Dillard says, about what frightens you and what fascinates you.

  1. List what you're afraid of and then list what you're drawn to.
  2. Free-write for five or ten minutes on a subject from each list.
  3. Where do these topics lead you?
  4. What did you learn? Do they connect?
  5. What surprising ideas and feelings emerge?
  6. What do you want to know next? Try this with other items on your list and see what develops.


Sherry Simpson

Journalism Exercise In Observation and Storytelling

Go to a public event where things are happening in an uncontrolled way. For example, hang around a billiards parlor, watch the crowd at a sporting event, follow a bouncer around a bar, go backstage to observe a play. Pay attention to everything: what people look like, how they react, what they say, what they do. Try to detect story lines: naturally occurring dramas unfolding before you. Capture dialogue. Describe people not just by physical features but by their mannerisms and actions.

  1. Write up a scene from your observations that encapsulates the feeling or atmosphere of the entire event.
  2. Try to use dialogue and description to show how events revealed themselves. Craft the scene; don't just record it blow-by-blow.

Nature-Writing Field Exercise

Robert Michael Pyle, author of Wintergreen: Listening to the Land's Heart, writes about learning to love "loathed lands." For example, in his book he examines the natural history and character of timber clearcuts in the Northwest.

  1. Describe a "loathed land" you know: an empty lot, a suburban development, a dump, a landscape ravaged by fire, etc.
  2. Spend time observing and investigating this place.
  3. Then write about this place so that it's possible to see it in a new and surprising way.

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