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Thursday, October 8

How Writing with Constraints Can Boost Your Writing Skills

By Sherry Howard, @SherLHoward


Part of The Writer's Life Series


JH: Sometimes we have to trick ourselves into getting better as a writer. Sherry Howard shares a trick to improve your writing skills.

Sherry Howard lives with her children and silly dogs in Middletown, Kentucky. Sherry is the author of the picture book ROCK AND ROLL WOODS, with a starred Kirkus review. Her poems and stories have appeared in multiple journals and anthologies. She also writes for the educational market, with about a dozen books. Her middle grade book, SPIRITS AMONG US, releases in October.

Sherry Howard | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Take it away Sherry...

Many years ago, I took as many MOOC (Massive Online) writing and poetry classes as I could handle. Iowa University in particular offered excellent fiction writing classes. The class content was top-notch, the world-wide audience that exchanged critiques was full of interesting people, and it was all free! I still stay in touch with people I met there.

One of the things that I struggled with at first was writing with constraints. There was always a maximum word count and a time constraint. Sometimes there was a topical constraint. It wasn’t until I got some writing experience under my belt that I realized how much all of that helped me. Even working on this post has brought some “aha” moments when I remember the way those classes started my writing journey.

Let’s consider a constraint.


Now that I do some freelance writing, I appreciate how lessons learned years ago helped prepare me for fitting a story within very specific constraints. For most freelance work of any kind you will likely have (minimally) word count and time constraints. You’ll often have topic or intended audience constraints, such as readable and of interest to an 8-year-old-child or a 30-something working mom.

Even when you’re doing your own writing, as opposed to writing for hire, you usually impose constraints unless you write only for your own enjoyment. And many of us have an end goal of publication. Even self-publishers want to please an audience enough to sell books or articles.

Let’s pull an example out of my thin air—the middle grade novel.


Sit down and write, minimal constraints, right? Nope!

Middle grade novels do have a wide range of content that fits the market—from silly to serious, fiction to non-fiction, issues-driven to fantasy-filled. Yet, there are expected word count ranges and voice, as well as limitations on grittiness. There are still gatekeepers for most middle grade readers, and those gatekeepers often want protections for children of that age from too much cursing, and too-raw portrayals of things like sex and drugs.

I propose that writing to constraints can help your growth as a writer. Length constraints are great, and a 300-word length works well as a constraint. Each page of a manuscript is just short of that. Anybody can fill a page, right?

Next, topics swirl through our worlds like confetti at a political rally. (It is an election year.)


Snag a topic blindly. Make it hard on yourself. No fair to write 300 words about your darling Shih Tzu. Write 300 words instead about the migration habits of Canadian geese, or snake venom, or the candidate running for city council or dog warden.

The harder it is to find the words, the more you will grow as a writer. And, then when you write about something that interests and excites you 300 words will be easy!

One of my favorite tools as a writer is the timer as a time constraint.


I use timers for lots of things in my life, so it was only natural for me to use a timer in my writing when I needed a push. Write for 30 minutes even if no word survives the cut. After 30 minutes, you’re likely to find yourself continuing to write. Even if you don’t, you have something on paper.

I’d love to hear what kinds of constraints others have used to improve your writing skills, manage your time, and be the boss of your world. Please share them in the comments so we can all try them. Or share how constraints of any kind (not any kind!!! We aren’t that kind of writers!) have helped you.

Speaking of middle grade, I’m excited about my book birthday this month! I used all of those constraints while I wrote and edited that middle grade novel, but my favorite is a timer.

If you find me on social media, I’m always happy to chat. I apologize, but I’m maxed out with Twitter follows right now, so I may not be able to follow right back, but tag me there if you have a question.


Scooter has been wheelchair bound ever since the accident that took her mother's life. Carrying on her mother's ghost hunting work, Scooter and her best friend Harlan create a YouTube show called Spirits Among Us. Wanting to get a message from her mother before she passes over, Scooter buys a special ghost-hunting camera and places it in her family's cemetery. But, when a string of robberies frighten the locals, will the camera capture more than a ghost?

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