Tired of old tricks? Try Constrained Writing

Good writing is something that comes with practice. You form your own style with tries and fails by every other version of the text. But at some point you start to notice that you're doing the same thing over and over again. You start to experience a kind of deja vu. This happens from time to time. And we're about to talk about the solution for this problem.

Writer can become a kind of an old dog, who had learned few tricks but never bothered to learn the rest - mainly because those few are enough for him to achieve bare minimum of comfort. It is funny at first, but later it becomes absolutely pitiful. That is common among the genre writers who once found their niche rarely move outside their comfort zone. That funny thing is also common among the poets who often work so hard to be instantly recognized that actually turn into ghostwriters of themselves. Yikes! That might hurt! However, if you have greater ambitions and no particular desire to become a complete heck - you need to keep yourself fit and try something new once in a while.

Why? Because writing can become a mundane routine or even complete chore. Something obliged, somewhat necessary, periodically inevitable. When you write constantly, especially for hire - you start to lean on set of particular skills. You start the same way, you lead your thought through the paragraphs the same way, you make your closing statement the same way - your manner is predictable - all because it works, it saves time, it makes money. You don't have to invent something every time you write. But there are some many other ways of doing things that ignoring them becomes a kind of crime nobody punishes for.


Constrained writing is "something completely different" that will make your world a little bit more colorful. In some cases, it may result in the full-on Pantone invasion in your mind, but we're jumping too far. What is constrained writing? Simple - It is a series of techniques that limits you according to certain rules. It may be anything. From a simple ignoring of certain letters or using limited vocabulary to deliberately writing something in inappropriate style (such as love letter in formal bureaucratic style). It can also be a transformation of narrative by using different terms (Shakespeare's sonnets as crime profiling), manners of speech (Skinhead's Hamlet) and points of view (Rosencranz and Hilderstern are Dead is the good example, sometimes it can be used literally, Macbeth from the bird's eye view). It can also be not writing but finding texts - doing textual ready-mades. It can be even putting together tiny bits and pieces of texts of various origins. You know - just like a sound collage of a Bomb Squad production. In other words - limitation provides and endless sea of possibilities.

Those kinds of techniques can be found all over literature, in most unexpected places. There's an 18-th century novel literally about everything but the its declared subject. But basically, anything can be deconstructed and reverse engineered to extract some kind of rules that shape its structure. The whole theory of defamiliarization is built around that. And that means that every piece of writing is constrained in some way. But those rules are natural to the pieces. In case of constrained writing the whole point of texts existence is to train yourself to act in an unfriendly environment. Toughen up if you like. To make yourself a little bit better, more different, even somewhat weirder.

Let's look at some of the most outrageous techniques of constrained writing:



Any 101 on the subject starts with this is one. While conceptually there's nothing really out there - limiting your dictionary is still one of the most effective techniques to expand your skills in word usage. Sometimes things can get truly bizarre with it. Just like when Dr. Seuss wrote an entire book using only 53 words. Like a boss.

Try it on your own with his set: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.


One of the techniques developed by the OULIPO outfit back in the 1940s. This technique requires having a text. Take any dictionary or better several dictionaries, the more specific the better - find the word, move seven words up or down (or any other ways seven times) - . Repeat until the sentence is finished. The result will be something of exquisite interest. The revenue will be something of exquisite intervention. You get the point. While there's pretty effective online generator I dare you to try it with an actual dictionaries - it's much more fun.


Once upon a time Mark Twain saw his story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" translated into French. It was terrible. The translation did the story no justice as the style and Twains signature humor were killed in action. Instead there were some clumsy sentences and bowels wrenching-level of plot incoherence. In fact it was so bad it was actually good, because Twain with his pitch black sarcarsm he was inspired to translated the story back into English. And he did it straight, without taking any liberties. With every stupid thing left intact. The result aptly titled "The Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, and Then Clawed Back Into A Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil" was glorious reproduction of infernal abyss of unreason that was French translation. In fact - his back translation became something of a cult favorite in the French group of Fumists.

Since the advent of the translating software things got even more interesting as there are numerous possibilities to create the text with high level of bizarreness simply by few clicks. But we must remember the Alamo.


As it says on the tin - it is about telling the story using only six words. You need to put all the important information to build up the rest of the narrative inside the readers head. And that requires some heavily lifting.

As the legend goes - Ernest Hemingway presumably wrote the shortest story ever "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." Read it closely. It got everything you need to know. Everything else you can think up on your own. Now that's called "tight narrative"!


Not a technique but a whole book by Raymond Queneau. It tells a simple story of one particular apparition in a high variety of style. The styles include: ode, sonnet, free verse, vulgar, noble, gastronomical, zoological, argot, onomatopoeia, blurb, entry in a dream journal, official letter, anagram, reportage, haiku, public service announcement, sermon and so on.


In case you're not impressed enough by the previous example. Here's one that will kick you in the guts and spit you in the face. Meta-fiction is a literary device to draw attention to the work's status as an artifact. This article is pretty meta if you think about - it's about writing and it is written and it's about writing being written the certain way written certain way about writing written writing writing.


This exercise may seem easy as a joke. But deeper you go - harder it gets to find anything really worthy. Rules are simple: take any text, read it through. Find patterns. Write them out, divide in lines - just like regular poems. Don't elaborate - just leave it as it is. One of the more famous examples of found poetry is one by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Here's his greatest hit:

The Unknown
As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don't know 
We don't know.

-Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing


This one is a variation on the previous entry. You need to take some text. Find the words of interest and black everything else. The result can be seen on the image of an article.


 With all that (and many more, I dare to look for the other techniques) you will be able to tackle any subject in any form with ease. Nothing will seem unbeatable for you.