• Ashley Dickson-Ellison

Creative Writing Activity: Word Sprints

Updated: May 10

Note that this post comes from my very first blog and website, teachingtheapocalypse.com. For faithful readers who have been with me through the years, that site will be going away before 2022!


I'm focusing today on a writing activity we've been using in Creative Writing class recently: Word Sprints. I've actually gotten inspiration for this activity from a twitter event that occurs most days. Several writers who I follow participate in #wordsprints, which are short bursts of writing during a specified time period (usually between 15 and 30 minutes). As the "sprint" suggests, the focus of these writing periods is on writing as many words as possible during that time.


In class, we pair word sprints with writing prompts. The students create and submit prompts, and then I select prompts at random. For our word sprint activities, I typically choose 2 unrelated prompts. We'll write for either 10 or 15 minutes per prompt.


At the end of the allotted time, we examine our word count and reflect on our writing. The students write self-evaluations, where they give themselves scores from 1 to 10 in four specific categories. At the beginning of the quarter, we brainstormed the wide range of writing criteria that we could use to evaluate our writing time in class. These are the four categories the students ultimately chose:


  1. Style: The students decided that they wanted to focus on improving their own unique style as writers. We often have a specific aspect of style on which we focus each time.

  2. Imagery: The students decided they wanted to focus on imagery throughout all of their pieces this year, so they always reflect on how well they incorporated imagery and detail into their pieces.

  3. Effort: This category encompasses the way that the students used their time and the amount of energy they put into the task.

  4. Creative Flexibility: The students decided that they wanted to always reflect on their creativity, but that they also wanted to push themselves to try new things and to adapt to new challenges. The result was this category.


Students give themselves scores from 1 to 10 in each of the categories. They come up with an average score that I record in the grade book. They also write reflections, commenting on what they did well and what they had trouble doing.


I like the word sprints because they wake up the brain and get ideas flowing quickly. I also like the sense of urgency that they create. I find myself interacting with prompts that seem impossible to penetrate, and the need to produce words quickly helps me make progress with them. I love the sound of people typing and writing frantically as they scramble to get their ideas down. It's a fun part of class, and it's also a great way to push past the feelings of staleness and inaccessibility.


Here's one of my latest word sprints, written from a prompt I found especially challenging. I feel the need to make all sorts of excuses, (like pointing out that I only had 15 minutes and that I haven't reworked it at all), but instead I'll just paste it in here:


PROMPT: Whales have mutated to fly in the sky. They also shoot lasers. It’s the whale-opacalypse. What do you do?


It started out like any other morning. My hologram alarm clock started projecting onto the far wall across from me and a hologram image of Eddie Vedder swooped down over me, singing me a good morning song. The blinds sprung open as the alarm sounded, signaling that it was time to get started with my day.


I forced myself to open my eyes and brace the reality. I had to get out of bed. I had to get to work.


Sadness crept in and I pondered what would happen if I didn’t show up today. The thought that nothing would happen did not exactly brighten my day, but it was enough to force me out of bed.


I realized a bit too late that the alarm was all wrong—the song Eddie was singing was far too late on the list of morning songs. I was going to be late.


I jumped down the stairs, two at a time, more terrified of the thought of the robot escort to the boss than I was of the actual conversation with the boss.


My coffee maker responded to my frantic voice, brewing me a giant latte that would help me cope with my day.


I was in such a hurry that I almost missed the sirens blaring, but when I stepped outside to jump into my hovercraft, I heard them distinctly piercing the air.


It was a disorienting experience, and at first I thought that it must have been just a test of the latest procedures for protection against bioterrorism or the other forms of weaponry constantly threatening our existence.


Just as I began going through the breathing exercises my yogi instructor had taught me to use when handling anxiety-inducing experiences, I noticed the shift from bright sunshine to sudden darkness.


The feeling of an ominous event washed over me as I craned my neck to look at the sky.


Something large and looming had crept over the sun, blocking out all light.


What could it be?


Around me, sirens blared and people screamed. I began to notice the traffic jam of hovercars as people stopped abruptly, frantically staring at the looming objects covering the sky.


It was then that I heard, amid all of the other distressing signals, the sound of a melodic, song-like wail.


I studied the sky again and realized that the objects, which I had initially believed to be blimps or warships of some kind, were in fact whales. The giant whales were covering the sky, and beams of light seemed to be coming from them.


I looked at my neighbor who was screaming as she stood on her porch. I started to walk toward her, thinking that we should at least take cover together. Just as I took my third step, a bright light flashed.


She was gone. Absolutely gone. The whale was shooting lasers and disintegrated her.


I looked up at the giant whale, remembering all too clearly how I had always admired those graceful creatures, and watched as more lasers shot out in all directions. One struck the ground close to me and I shuddered, suddenly remembering that I had to seek shelter.


The end was near.


505 words. I'd give myself an 8.5. I put forth considerable effort, and I definitely scored high in the creative flexibility area, since I never write futuristic stuff. However, my imagery could have been much better, and I was not pleased with my style.(However, my life partner who is proofreading this gives it a 10 because it's exactly the sort of stuff he loves to read... Whales with lasers? How can that not be awesome??? ~Signed, The Husband)


The whole point is that word sprints are great ways to get your ideas flowing, and they are a quick, easy way to embark on new adventures.


(Truth: I had my life partner, who always reads my blogs before I post them (this is no longer true in 2020 but was in the early days!), read this, and he loved my little word sprint story. You have no idea how happy this makes me. I mean it when I say I truly thought it was terrible. Anyway, he also told me that I had to resolve this somehow--that it had no conclusion... So here goes. Here's a conclusion.)


You never know where the word sprints will go, or what will happen with the stories that you create. I don't have an ending for this one yet, but I'll be a lot more likely to come back to it and visit it again now that I've posted it somewhere.


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