Someone once said that you know you are a great writer when you can write about anything. I respectfully disagree. Indeed, a great writer can in fact write about anything, but that's not what puts them among the greats. Instead, I would argue that writing about anything makes you a writer, and the more you practice writing about things you are unfamiliar with, the better you get. Eventually, you will achieve greatness. I sure hope I do someday.
The real exercises, though, come when someone throws a topic, subject, or phrase at us and says, "Start writing!" We get hit out of nowhere with this fresh, new idea, and we just have to get to work. These are particularly helpful when we decide to create something fresh and new, and not just rehash something we thought about or jotted down years ago and now just redo again in order to complete the exercise. No - we need a fresh look, new ideas, and an approach where we want to grow as writers. After that, we just create.
And on that note, here's a simple writing exercise. Grab a book - literally any book; the more remote the better - open it at random, plunk your finger down on the page, find the first sentence that comes after your finger, and use the first part of that sentence as a prompt. Keep in mind you do not need to write about the specific characters that might be referenced, or keep within the theme of the story you are given. Just excerpt that one little clause, and start writing whatever hits your brain. I will offer three examples from books scattered about my office right now:
- "She decides to use dynamic programming..."
- "So they divided the land between them..."
- "It only takes a few drinks..."
There. Three simple prompts pulled randomly from three books (A textbook, the Bible, and my own novel - I think you can guess which matches with the quotes.) Now, is it important to know what dynamic programming is? Whose land we are talking about? What drinks are being discussed? Nope. Sometimes it's even better to start writing from the vantage point of ignorance just to get the creative juices flowing. If we don't know the context, we are not restricted by it. And at that point, we are free to create our own narrative.
One last note: When we write from a random prompt, don't expect to create a work of art. Maybe you will, but chances are you won't. Rather, give yourself license to create something ugly and weird and completely new that you can claim as your own. Use it as proof that you can write about anything, and you'll be on your way to being a great writer.