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How to use randomness to spice up your writing

Advanced techniques for writers

Why randomness?

It’s easy to let our internal censor tell us we can’t or shouldn’t write about something or that what we want to write is ‘silly’ or ‘too much.’ Using randomness can help bypass the internal censor and get to the interesting stuff. In this post you’ll get three tools for introducing randomness into your writing: word jars, cut up technique, and ephemera.

The trips jar

I heard about a guy who had been widowed and was bringing up three kids. Things had been tough and a few years after his wife died, they started a ‘trips jar’. On slips of paper all four of them wrote down places they would like to visit, then they folded them up and put them in an old-fashioned sweets jar. When they had some time free at the weekend for a family outing, they would pull out a slip of paper and that’s where they’d go.

Creative Constraints

The thing about the trips jar was that all of the destinations on those pieces of paper were real places that they wanted to visit. None of them said ‘Neverland’ or ‘the moon’ or ‘a unicorn forest’. They were solid workable ideas in other words; that was the creative constraint, and the secret to making their trips jar work, while the random nature of the trips jar made it fun and engaging and sparked the kids’ imaginations.

The same is true when you use randomness in your writing. As well as the random element, you need a creative constraint, a framework if you like, the rules of the game that will make the randomness work.

I’m going to give you three ways to add some randomness to your writing but bear in mind that you need the creative constraint as well, related to your particular writing project. First, some warm ups.

Randomness warm ups

Here are a couple of exercises to get you started if you’re not used to using randomness in your writing. They are great to come back to, and for generating source material.

  1. Create lists. I love list making. They can be a sort of brain download or simply involve observation of your environment. Using numbered lists helps, because your brain wants to rise to the challenge of completing a list of a certain number of items. Come up with your top ten sandwiches, holiday destinations, or places you’ve found awe-inspiring, or poisonous flowers, for example. You can google if you like! To use observation and mindfulness to generate ideas, write lists of what you can see, hear, smell, touch or taste where you are right now. You could go to a particular place: on a walk around your neighborhood or to the beach, for example, and repeat the exercise. Keep your lists safe until you have a chance to use them as source material.
  2. Use freewriting. Time yourself for a minute and write down (or type) anything you like. The only rule is that you don’t take your pen from the page or your fingers from the keyboard. You can increase the time to 5, 10 and then 15 minutes until you get used to freewriting without a timer. Once you’re done, go over the results and pick out words and phrases that you like, underlining or highlighting them in color. Peter Elbow talks about freewriting in his book Writing with Power, an interesting read if you like the technique.

Create a spark box

Create a word jar or spark box. On slips of paper, write down random words, phrases, objects, places, lines of dialogue (preferably overheard somewhere), proverbs or aphorisms and place them in an empty tissue box or in the sort of candy jar described in the ‘trips jar’ example above. These boxes or jars of words and phrases are sometimes known as ‘spark boxes’ because when you need an idea – or a spark – you can pull out a slip of paper at random and use it. You could make one dedicated only to lines of overheard dialogue, or objects, or job titles, or places, or another theme. Arguably these more specific jars / boxes are more useful because they already have a creative constraint applied.

Use cut up technique

Cut up is an experimental writing technique initiated by William Burroughs in the 50s. You can read more about its history here. Here’s how you can use it to add some randomness to your writing. Cut out bits of text from newspapers and magazines. You could also cut up packaging and adverts. You can even cut up a draft of your own work as long as you’ve saved a copy. Spread the bits across a table or the floor and rearrange them to create new phrases and sentences. You can take pictures of these to use later or jot down what you come up with in a notebook. Combine the word jar and the cutup technique by saving interesting words, phrases and sentences to select at random later.

Collect ephemera

Everyday things that we usually throw away often have an interesting story to tell. Tickets, receipts, postcards, birthday cards and event flyers all count. Yes, the paper versions of these things are being replaced by the digital, but that doesn’t stop you from using them. You could make a list of ephemera and how it could feature in your work, or you could collect actual ephemera in a box with a hand-sized hole in the top for pulling out the contents when you need inspiration.

Let me know how you get on in the comments. You can read the next post in the series here.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. If you’d like more tips like these, take a look at the Small Steps Writing Guides.



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