Writing Exercises—Ways to Warm Up Your Students’ Brains

A lot of times we talk about using writing exercises as a warm up for our “real” writing. But I was curious: Do most writers really do this? I don’t typically warm up by doing a writing prompt. Instead, I enjoy going for a run on a wooded trail before I sit down to write in the morning. It’s not just the exercise but being out in nature that inspires me. I often solve some writing snag while I’m in the thick of the forest. I stop and look around, soaking up the feel of the wind, the sun, the sky.

I thought I’d throw the question out to other children’s book writers: How do you wake up your brain before diving into your work? Here’s what they said:

  • Listen to music
  • Go for a walk
  • Stretch
  • Reread what was written the day before
  • Listen to a poetry podcast
  • Journal
  • Eat a good breakfast
  • Look at a photo and write about it
  • Create a word bank
  • Review research related to the topic of the book (for nonfiction)

You might want to help your students become mindful of what gets them warmed up to begin writing. Maybe they do like beginning with a writing prompt. Or doodling. Or passing out the writing folders to the other students to get up and moving. Here’s a way to help you (or your students) find out.

Have your students do an experiment: As a class, come up with four different ways to wake up the brain before beginning a writing assignment. A few you could try include:

  • Listen to soothing music
  • Stretch or do simple yoga positions
  • Write from a writing prompt
  • Free journal
  • Take a walk around the school (if possible, outside)

Each day, have the class try one method followed by their usual writing assignment. Afterward, have each student write down how they felt about it:

  • Did you feel your writing flowed more or less than usual after the activity?
  • Did you feel more or less energized?
  • Did you feel more or less focused in your writing?

After the experiment concludes, discuss as a class what students learned about what helps them warm up for writing. Which method was most useful? Why? They may be surprised!

Need some writing prompts? Here are some good ones:






My Favorite Writing Tools

Favorite Writing ToolsIt’s the end of the year. For most people, the changing of the calendar is a time to take stock of where you’ve been and to figure out where you want to go. Successes are counted; vision boards are created; goals are written; and a shiny new year of possibility is just waiting for the clock to strike midnight.

It’s a hopeful time.

This year, I decided not to wait for the new year to revamp my writing life. I dove in early – not with the stock-taking or the goal-setting components though. I’m already pretty clear about where I’ve been and where I’d like to get. Instead, I focused on the regular sit-down-and-write parts of the job. What’s working? What’s not? And are there some writing tools I can use to make all of it easier?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying things out. I’ve created some rituals to help make the transition to writing quicker and easier and I’ve gotten rid of some tools/habits that just aren’t working. I’ve also played with some new tools to see what might make me more efficient and more organized. I thought I’d share my current writing tool box with you all as a little New Year’s gift, with the hope that you might find something on my list that will make writing a little easier for you too.

This Year’s Top Writing Tools


People have suggested this program to me forever, and I’ve resisted, whole-heartedly, until this month when my computer crashed, and I lost a ton of writing-research bookmarks and links.

So I gave in and tried the free version of Evernote. Now, I’m a little bit hooked.

Evernote is a cloud-based note-taking application that lets you clip web articles, save picture, take notes and generally organize your life and your projects across all of your devices. For someone like me who failed at Scrivener and never remembers to use One Note, Evernote’s a bit of a miracle. Now my web links, random thoughts, beat sheet, and character sketches are all in one, easy-to-search place.

At least everything except the things I hand write. Yep, I still like to write things down. Journals, sticky notes, legal pads – story ideas, character sketches, sudden bursts of inspiration are scattered throughout my house. So this month, I cleaned it up. Sticky notes get typed into Evernote. So does legal pad planning. Everything else goes into the journal dedicated to my work in progress – and it’s all dated and tabbed so I can easily see what was actually a useful idea and what was just me rambling along. One thing hasn’t changed, though. I’m picky about my hand writing tools. They have to feel good and be exactly the right size, large enough to write fast and loose in and small enough to fit in my purse. My favorite place for project notebooks and a solid pen is:

Peter Pauper Press:

Their notebooks are solid and durable and the paper is thick, so colored ink and highlighters don’t bleed through. Their pens are pretty, just heavy enough, and easy (and cheap) to refill. I’ve been using their notebooks and pens for years now, and it’s one part of my writing system that I’m not going to change.

The next tool, however, is a huge change from my usual writing work. You see, I’m one of those writers who likes it quiet. I don’t have novel playlists or soundtracks, and I don’t write while the TV is keeping me company in the background. I don’t need complete silence though, coffee house chatter is fine – and every so often I’ll even break out one of those ambient noise apps and write to a rainstorm or some ocean waves. But all that changed the other day when I was reminded of the power of binaural beats. I’ve used Frequency Following Response in my hypnosis practice many times, but I’ve never used it to help with my own writing focus.

Brainwave Entrainment

Brainwave entrainment is basically listening to two specific sound frequencies at the same time. These frequencies trick your brain into creating a third frequency, a binaural beat, that helps lead your brain into a desired state – relaxed, meditative, focused, alert, etc. Admittedly, the whole thing is a little woo and the science on it is pretty much a big maybe right now. But lots of people swear by it, and I’ve noticed that if I listen to the right frequencies for a few minutes (paired with some ambient sounds like a waterfall or ocean waves) when I start a writing session, I slip into a work state more quickly than if I just sit down and try to write. There’s a lot of interesting articles about it on the internet and some free apps/YouTube videos to check out if you’re interested. Just know, it’s not for everyone.

The last thing on my list is my go-to inspirational book. I know a lot of people turn to Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird with things get tough – and I love it, too, but my go-to break-out-of-a-slump book is one by novelist Steven Pressfield.

The War of Art

It’s a small book and a quick read.  And it’s usually the tough love reminder I need to walk through my fear and get back to work.

So, that’s my current list of favorite writing tools. I’m still testing out a couple more – like the list-making application Trello and a bullet journal style calendar/day planner. Maybe I’ll update this post when I’ve sorted those out. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite writing tools. What can’t you live without? And what are you going to change or try this year to make the day-to-day work go smoother? Please share in the comments below!

Insights from Evaluating my New Year’s Writing Resolutions

I’m really good at creating writerly/life goals every January.

However, I’m terrible at evaluating these New Year’s resolutions. I rarely reflect on what obtaining or letting go of aspirations might mean.

For 2020, I’d like to start a new tradition of spending just as much time evaluating last year‘s goals as in the creation of this year‘s goals.

I’m going to take you step-by-step in what I hope will be new tradition of evaluation and reflection. I hope to come away with helpful take-aways.

Looking back at 2019, I see that I met my physical goal of walking and going to the gym 3 to 4 times a week.

This says to me I was serious about taking care of my physical needs. I can applaud myself, yes? Well, sure. In fact, unless it was rainy or I had morning appointments, I walked every day. However, when I went to the gym, I often focused on reading my book on the elliptical versus challenging myself.

Take-away: I can do better. Sweat more. Be more in the moment.

For reading, I pledged to read more wonderful novels such as The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart and Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras. I did this. Yet I could a much better job of reviewing books after reading them. I want others to review my books on Goodreads, and I need to do the same for my colleagues.

Take-way. Read wonderful books. And support authors by reviewing their books.

I promised to keep up with my grading (I teach college). And while I had the best intentions, by somewhere in the middle of the semester, I started to get two weeks behind. Yes, I can do better. But also sometimes not working means that I am engaging in self-care. There are periods when not keeping up with a certain obligation is actually a good thing, especially if there’s some sort of pressing situation.

Take-away. It’s okay to slow down. It’s okay sometimes not to meet a goal.

I met almost all of my marketing goals. However, I’m flagging a problem. With an educator, I wrote an honesty curriculum based on issues that come up with my chapter book series Ellie May. Yet, I haven’t posted it on my website or really made the curriculum available. It shows that just making a goal isn’t what counts. How did that help you accomplish a benchmark? How did it meet expectations?

Take-away. It’s not just the goal that counts. It’s often the follow-through that’s more important.

I look at my writing goals and I’m pleasantly surprised. I met five out of the seven goals. I polished and revised three picture books, one of which I sold. I came up with new picture book ideas for Tara Lazar’s Storystorm. Additionally, I got to the end of a science fantasy MG, which I’ve been working on for eleven years. This felt like a big win because it’s a project I always put on the backburner. Plus, it’s outside of my comfort zone and has helped me stretch as a writer.

Take-away. Consider why a goal is actually important to you.

I didn’t write any part of my contemporary Jewish-themed middle grade. Why? Well, honestly,I didn’t get to it. And I’m not emotionally prepared for the themes in this book. It’s okay. I will write this book when I’m ready. I’m not right now–that’s my truth and okay with it.

Take-away. Consider why you didn’t meet a particular goal and decide if you are okay with that reason.

I did work on two middle grades that were a welcome surprise–two books in the Kate the Chemist series with Dr. Kate Biberdorf. Dragons vs. Unicorns comes out this April with Philomel Books followed by The Escape Room. Fifth grader Kate uses chemistry (my favorite science) to solve everyday problems and mysteries. I’m super proud of these books. Working with Dr. Kate and the team at Philomel has been unapologetically blissful and added so much writing fun to my life.

Take-away. You can’t plan everything. And that’s just fine.

That one is so important. I will repeat it. You can’t plan everything. For me, there were some health issues that came up as well as some challenging conditions brought about by wildfires. But every challenge has gifted me with new insights and prompted me to live more joyfully.

2020. This myopic writer is definitely looking forward to a year with clearer vision.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2-18), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.