Creative Writing Exercises Perfect for English Learners
1. Vocabulary story
Now, write a story using as many of the words on the list as you can. Aim to include 10-20 words in your story, depending on how much time you have for this exercise. Have some fun with it and try to get the finished story to make sense.
What you’ll learn: This exercise will help you understand and remember vocabulary words better for a number of reasons. Here are a few:
- Using words in a sentence ensures you understand how to use them.
- It’s easier to remember words in context (with some other words around them). The sillier your story, the more easily you’ll remember the words you used. (Memory experts use this method to remember the order of hundreds of playing cards!)
- Writing things down activates a different part of your brain, helping you remember vocabulary words even better.
When your story is finished, you can share it with friends or on a blog. Encourage readers to point out any mistakes you made.
2. Picture story
Grab the closest magazine to you and choose a random picture. Describe it in as much detail as you can. Don’t just write what you see. Imagine you’re in the picture. Think about what you would smell, feel or even taste.
What you’ll learn: We use descriptions in our daily life all the time: “I’m tired.” “Her dress is so stylish.” “This mocha tastes amazing.” Descriptions like these are used often in conversational English! Through this exercise, you’ll learn more about adjectives, feelings and perceptions (how we see and experience the world).
3. Structured summary
Think back to the last book you read or movie you watched. Summarize it (say what happened briefly) using this formula:
Confused? Here’s what it looks like in action:
“Bruce Wayne wanted to save Gotham but supervillains were trying to destroy it, so he trained hard and became Batman.”
Recognize that story? That’s a summary of “Batman Begins.” To use the formula in the same way, just fill in the blanks:
- Somebody: Who is the main character of the story? This character’s name can replace [Somebody] in the sentence above.
- Wanted: What is the character’s motivation? (In other words, what does he or she want?) This should come after the word “wanted.”
- But: What stands in the way of the character and what he or she wants? Put whatever it is after “but.”
- So: What does the character do to overcome this obstacle? Follow “so” with whatever they do.
You can also add another part:
- Then: What happens after the character overcomes the obstacle (how is everything resolved)?
Here’s another example:
“Little Red Riding Hood wanted to visit her grandmother but when she got there she found a wolf instead, so she yelled for help and a passerby came to her rescue. Then everybody lived happily ever after!”
What you’ll learn: This method can help you summarize almost anything. You might find it difficult to explain an entire story or book in just one sentence. That’s the great thing about it: You learn to explain a complex idea in a simple sentence. This skill will be useful whenever you need to explain something concisely (in a simple and short way). For example, if you’re writing an email about a party, it will be easier for you to pick out the most important parts.
You can also improve your reading comprehension with this summarization method. Every time you read a book or a story in English, you should summarize it to yourself, to make sure you understood it. If you can’t write a good summary, you might want to re-read the book or story more carefully.
4. Devil’s advocate
Is there something you feel strongly about? Let’s say, for example, that you believe every person should learn a second language. Take this belief, and write about it from the opposite point of view. In this case, you would write about why everyone should not learn another language.
In English, this is called “playing devil’s advocate.” That’s when you take a side you don’t actually believe in, just to see an issue from a different point of view.
What you’ll learn: Aside from teaching an English skill, this exercise teaches a life skill, empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels, even if you don’t feel the same way. This skill is important to have, and writing can help you develop it.
Aside from that, doing this exercise is a great way to learn how to express opinions in English. It might also get you using words you would not normally use, since you’re speaking from a different perspective. You might even learn something new about yourself!
5. Idiom soup
An idiom is a saying that doesn’t actually mean what it says. For example, “it’s raining cats and dogs” doesn’t mean animals are really falling from the sky (it just means it’s raining very hard).
A cliché is an extremely overused saying or phrase that’s used so often it’s not original anymore.
Clichés are like idioms that have been used so often they’ve stopped being special, like saying “only time will tell” or “easy as pie.”
Write a story that uses as many clichés and idioms as you can!
What you’ll learn: Sometimes learning English feels like you “bit off more than you can chew” (took on a task that’s too big). A great way to build confidence is to know phrases and sayings you can use in many situations. Using clichés and idioms will build your vocabulary and ensure that when you hear them spoken by a native, you’ll know exactly what they mean.
6. It was a dark and stormy night
Grab the closest book to you and open to the first page. What’s the first sentence? A good first sentence sets up the story and makes you want to keep reading. Some first sentences are classics, like the opening line to George Orwell’s “1984”:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Some others…don’t do the job as well.
In fact, one first sentence was so absolutely terrible, that it started an entire competition. Called The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, it encourages everyone to send in their best worst first lines.
Try to write your own! Look through a few of the past contest winners, then write your own terrible first line. Let your sentence use humor and maybe even some cultural references. Let the sentence run long, but make sure the grammar is perfect. How bad is your first line? It’s hard to be worse than the original first sentence that inspired the competition:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
— Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
This first sentence is terrible because it tries to put a lot of unnecessary information into one sentence. It goes on for way longer than it should, without giving you any important information. Use this exercise to practice your compound sentences, and try some comparisons or metaphors (when you compare two different things based on a shared characteristic).
For example, if you start your sentence by talking about bad weather, you can compare it to a wet dog who has gone swimming in the Gowanus Canal in NYC (known for being disgustingly dirty and unhealthy) without wearing a biohazard suit (a suit that protects you from harmful chemicals). See how much you can pack into just one sentence?
What you’ll learn: How much information can you include in just one sentence? This exercise lets you pack a lot in. Like summarizing, this exercise will help you express yourself clearly and be understood better. Another benefit of doing this exercise is the chance to use English-language humor, which requires knowledge of English-speaking culture. Plus, it’s fun!
7. Story of my life
Think of something that you did in the past, like playing the piano or going to school. Write about your experience with this activity. Your writing should start in the past and end in the future.
For example, you can write:
“I started playing the piano when I was five, but I stopped only two years later. Right now I can’t play anything, but I hope to start learning again in the future.”
What you’ll learn: We love talking about ourselves. Everyone does! That’s why a large part of our daily conversations are about us. In this exercise, you learn how to speak about personal experience and describe something about yourself. It’s also a good way to practice using correct verb tenses.
8. How to breathe
A “how-to” is a type of writing that describes how to do something step-by-step. Most how-to’s teach something new, like how to bake a chocolate cake, or how to use a certain feature on your phone.
For this exercise, write a how-to for something a bit…different. Think of something you do every day without thinking, and write a how-to about that. Write about something like tying your shoelaces, checking your email on your phone or even breathing. Your how-to should look something like this, using clear language and organized by steps. The how-to in that link teaches how to write a how-to…whew!
What you’ll learn: You would be surprised at how difficult this is! Even something as simple as walking can be a disaster if you don’t organize the instructions well. (Let’s take a moment to thank our legs for knowing how to work without us. Otherwise we might all be flopping around like in this “walking simulator” game.)
Writing a how-to will teach you to organize your thoughts better. It’s also a chance to practice informative writing, or writing that teaches new information. By using easy-to-understand language, you’ll also be practicing using many common words.
9. The silly job interview
Imagine walking into a job interview with the boss of a company. You’re very nervous and very polite, but the company boss is just having fun. You really want this job, but all he wants to do is make you even more nervous. It might look a little like this. (Since the accents and speaking speed in the video can make it difficult to understand, you can read what they say here.)
Write a similar dialogue for a job interview that’s going terribly wrong. The job applicant is professional and serious, while the boss is using conversational English and even English slang. What might that conversation sound like?
What you’ll learn: If you’ve ever had a job interview, you know how scary it can be. Writing a silly scene like this might make you feel a little better the next time you do an interview. Then you can think, “Well, at least it wasn’t as bad as in that dialogue I wrote!”
Of course, this exercise also teaches some English skills (and not just life skills). It’s a good way to practice writing dialogue, and to focus on how people speak. In this dialogue, you get a chance to use professional English, conversational English and even English slang. Use this as a chance to experiment!