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The Power of Constrained Writing

Updated on March 19, 2015

What is constrained writing?

Constrained writing is a powerful tool that I will often use to jump start a story. I often found that staring at a blank white page could get a little intimidating. Should I write a story about time travel or robots that are powered by laughter or a romantic tale of a super heroes first kiss? I was suffering from the doubt of infinite possibility. I couldn't get started on one story because I was too busy trying to think of all the stories.

Writers can sometimes sit and wait for a muse to come along and tap them on the shoulder with a burst of inspiration but I have found that writers that wait for inspiration to walk in the door are writers that don't actually write. Writing like anything is a skill. The more you do it the better you get at it. There is not a writer on the planet that has sat down and immediately started pumping out best selling award winners. Just as Michael Jordan didn't walk on to a basketball court as the best basket player of all time, a writer needs to hone their craft.

One exercise that I use is constrained writing. Basically constrained writing is the setting of rules that I place upon myself about what can happen in the story or how I am allowed to tell it. These can be limitations on the number of words, or requirements for how the action can take place, or rules about dialogue. For an example I once told this story based on the constraint that the characters were only allowed to speak to each other using old cliches:

Tired Clichés

Sarah has the prettiest blue eyes I have ever seen in real life. She is so beautiful that it hurts. When she smiles it’s like someone is punching me in the stomach. She works in the cubicle next to mine and occasionally she’ll wheel her little chair over and ask me, “Working hard or hardly working?”

I’ll laugh along because it means that she’ll smile at me and even though it hurts deep down in my guts, it feels like the sweetest kind of pain. I point back at her like I am a character in a cheesy 90’s sitcom about to hit her with a zinger, “You know another day another dollar.”

I want to throw aside this flimsy little wall that separates us.

I want to grab her and pull her close.

I want to gaze into those eyes that seem like miracles and say something.


Instead, “Sure is a hot one today.”

“Yeah, but it’s a dry heat.” She smiles and goes back to working on some report no one will read for some company no one cares about.

I go back to staring at my screen. Is there anything more cliché than a coward’s unrequited love?

This story will most likely never see publication (well outside of this article, I guess) but it was still a way to get some words on the page. By following exercises like constrained writing you can develop techniques that you wouldn't typically employ.

Writing Exercises

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How to Use Constrained Writing

So you are sitting at your computer and you are already having trouble thinking of what you want to write and how to write it and the big blank white screen seems to be mocking you and maybe you are panicking a little bit because you don't know what to do and now I have to come up with a constraint and...


This is a tool to help you get in the habit of writing. And here is the big news flash for you: the rough draft of anything you write is probably going to suck. Rough draft of War and Peace? Probably terrible. The other dirty little secret is that it is perfectly okay for your initial writing to be terrible. The worst thing that can happen is that you hit select all and delete it.

Start by giving yourself a a rule on the length of your story. Something like you are going to tell a complete story in 300 words or less. This makes you think about how to condense information. It can be harder to tell a story in fewer words, this makes you eliminate some of the fluff that is so easy to pack in. When you are talking about the chair your character is sitting in, maybe you don't have to explain the swirls of the wood grain or maybe you'll have to skip over, that the character is sitting in a chair at all. This constraint on the amount of words you can use forces you to be creative and to make editorial choices and let's face it the thought of writing a 300 word story is much less daunting than sitting down to write a whole book.

Once you are comfortable with limiting your word count you can look to limit other things, you can set whatever limits on yourself you want. The more you get comfortable with these exercises the more difficult and creative you can get with your constraints.

If you are comfortable with sharing I'll start you off with a little exercise you can post in the comments below. Write a story about a boy and a pretty girl in 50 words or less. Here's mine:

Time stopped as she smiled at me from across the room. It could have been because my heart was leaping out of my chest. Or it could have been because time always stops when angel choirs are singing. Or it could have been because her partner had stolen my watch.


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    • profile image

      erma Lewis 

      3 years ago

      Very interesting. Great job!


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