Benefits of Writing With Constraints

By Sherry Howard

Don’t get it twisted.

Writing with constraints isn’t the same as writing in restraints.

All writers deal with constraints. Writing for a blog post? You have an optimal length, a certain expectation for civility—unless you’re Chuck Wendig. Making a submission to a magazine? You’ll likely have a theme to fit into, either for the issue or for the magazine itself. Working on that novel? We all know that the expectations for word length in novels is fluid, but hard to sell if the length is too far outside the parameters.

What we don’t always realize is how much constraints can help us improve our writing. I cut my novel-writing teeth in Iowa University’s MOOC classes where constraints were a given. I learned to write in 400 words with a specific constraint for most assignments. The 400 word limit required me to weigh the value of each and every word. The thematic constraints challenged my creativity in the best way possible.

This Drabble Contest our fearless leader ran is a wonderful example. Janet Reid’s Flash Fiction Contests are the best! She even offers prizes, and the variety of stories generated from the five prompt words prove the point that constraints inspire genius: word cap restraints and prompt words. Many on-line literary magazines provide prompts and themes to get your creativity spinning.

Instead of letting constraints put you in handcuffs, use them to energize your writing. Look around your world. Create your own constraints. Here are a few ideas to get you going.

1. Ask someone you love for a story idea. My first picture book started with a constraint placed by my granddaughter. Write about a bear. Name the bear Kuda. ROCK AND ROLL WOODS was born. (And picture book writing is FULL of constraints.)

2. Start with a famous quote. Use our handy friend Google or a reference book of quotes. Take either the whole quote, the spirit of the quote, or a select number of words from the quote. Write for ten minutes, an hour, or write 400 words using the constraints you chose.

3. Use word count or time limits. Since you’re a member of this group, it will come as no surprise how much you can do in 10 minutes.  250 words create a page, 10 minutes create a scene. Keep creating words and scenes and soon you’ll have a story, novella, or novel.

4. Take a walk and choose any three things or people you see to write about. From my front porch I saw a ladder in my neighbor’s yard with a lawn chair placed in front of it like someone had been watching my neighbor trim a high branch. On the ground lay clippers. No humans. See how many story possibilities are there with those three things?

5. Look at the news on-line or a news show. Take one sentence. Any sentence. Explore the topic.

6. Use numbers one through ten in a piece of any length, but in a way that makes sense to the story. Or pick any three random numbers and work them into a story or scene.

7. Pick a season or a holiday. Write either a story about the holiday or an anti-holiday story. Ever hear of The Grinch?

8. Find a listing of prompts, but choose three instead of one. I have several books of prompts, but I never use them. The world is full of prompts, which can also be constraints, if you look with purpose.

9. Open a dictionary or any book and find the tenth line on page ten, or whatever combination you choose, choose four different words/lines using four combinations of page/line. Now develop a scene.

10. Choose moments in your life that had a huge impact. Write them from another persons POV. Here’s what I did. I’ve always been haunted by a drowning I witnessed as a child. Instead of writing my memory of the event, I wrote it in my brother’s POV, and made myself the drowning victim. It was great therapy for working through a sad memory, and great practice with constraints. (My mother still isn’t speaking to me for drowning my ten-year-old self.)

11. Use art as prompt. Study the great masters. Buy some second-hand art books. Follow Inktober and other art challenges. Follow illustrators and artists.

12. Write poetry. By its nature, it is full of constraints.  It’s one of my favorite ways to challenge myself.

13. Get lost on YouTube. No, really don’t. Because you can spend hours and never find your way out. Set a timer (your constraint!). Grab an idea and get out. Write the topic from an unexpected POV.

Those are just a few ideas to get you thinking about using constraints, sometimes disguised as prompts, to tickle your brain cells into greater creativity.

Get writing!


Sherry Howard lives with her children and crazy dogs in Middletown, Kentucky, a stone’s throw from the beautiful horse farms Kentucky is always bragging about. In her previous life Sherry was a teacher, consultant, author, and principal in one of the largest urban/ suburban school districts in America. She was published in the educational field for years, and she’s seen her poems and stories appear in multiple journals and anthologies. After writing six novels, she finally decided to see about getting an agent and getting one published. She’s delighted to be working with Clear Fork Publishing to share her children’s books. Her first picture book is available for pre-order. If your child child has sensory motor problems, be sure to watch for this book. Come say hello: Facebook Twitter Sherry Howard

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

One Comment

  • Cindy Argentine

    Sherry, thanks for the great ideas. I love how you view what could be a negative (constraints) as a real positive! And your point number one is a super example–I love how your granddaughter inspired you.