Speeds (and) Limits: Creativity and Constraints

I’d assume that most people who write just start writing, unconcerned with the word count or the speed in which they finish the piece. It is, of course, reasonable. Like people say, you can’t really rush great art – especially if an idea is in its infancy, or is still in the middle stages of development. In fact, even if the piece is already finished, some people still choose to go over it, again and again over an indefinite period of time, revising, taking out and putting in, attempting to refine what has already been written. It’s also, perhaps, safe to assume that no one wants anyone else to be breathing down their neck in the process of creating, especially when that someone else basically makes the feeling of pressure worse.

It is interesting, however, to see just how one can write within a constrained environment. Education does this. Teachers demand output within a certain number of days – an essay with a specific (and sometimes strict) word count, flash fiction, six-word stories… the list can go on, and the challenges tougher and tougher, depending on those who are giving it. While constraints such as time pressure and word count are usually tools that frustrate and make artificial the piece, it would be interesting to actually go through a writing session with strict constraints.

I wrote about microblogging before – Twitter, in particular – and talked about how quick fix “fast food” social media platforms actually become unhealthy for the creative aspect, and while I still stand there, I’m talking about constraining creative writing. Pressure produces interesting results – if not always excellent – and constraints attempt to improve one’s creativity.

Several websites online offer writing prompts with constraints. Prompt tables exist to limit the theme, but I’m talking about websites that actually give a topic, a word count, and/or a limited time frame. One is challenged to produce something within those constraints. While the writer is not required to share, certainly it can serve as a form of evaluation of one’s ability to work around or within constraints.

If writing with constraints doesn’t sound good… well, I’d say don’t dismiss it just yet. Instead, try it for yourself. You can create your own challenges, tailor-made to suit your needs, your skills, or what you think you need to work on. Three-hundred and fifty words may serve as a limit, and you can write about, say, characters or dialogue. Find what you think are your weak points in writing, and try to improve them by using the constraints as a tool to help you work around your problems. If you tend to write sentences that go on and on, try using constraints to make things snappy. Long, winding sentences may sound interesting, but if the point is lost – or if it’s so simple it could be said in a few words – the idea is ineffectively communicated.

A Few Links:

I’ve already mentioned that there are websites that produce constrained writing exercises to help the writer. For a start, I’d suggest trying out OneWord (which I’ve already mentioned in one of the older posts in this site) and ChaoticShiny. OneWord provides a sixty-second time frame and a one-word writing prompt. From there, anything goes. Chaotic Shiny, meanwhile, can generate a set of writing exercises that demand the writer to focus on specific items, methods of writing, a word count, or a combination of some (or all) of these. Try them out for yourself and see what kinds of things you come up with.


Jillian is an English Literature graduate who loves reading science fiction and fantasy, and is a big fan of J.G. Ballard. She is obsessed with coffee, video games, and rottweilers, and keeps herself busy by writing and walking around a lot. She's currently reading Jeanette Winterson and a lot of YA literature.

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