Writers Need Warmups Too

How and why to warm up for an awesome writing session

Woman doing gentle yoga at sunrise
Woman doing gentle yoga at sunrise
Photo by kike vega on Unsplash

Full disclosure: I initially tried to write this article without sufficiently warming up first. This was foolish, and unsurprisingly, didn’t work.

Warmups are, in my ever-humble opinion, a critical first step toward performing at one’s best. Athletes, musicians, and actors all warm up before doing their thing, and they do so for reasons that go beyond avoiding injury.

Years ago, I went to school for acting, and a key part of our training (every morning) was learning to warm ourselves up for the work ahead. It wasn’t just about preparing our bodies to move or our voices to be used in the ways a given role required.

The warmups were also about connecting with our emotions, and they helped us tune into the many subtle impulses within ourselves that, when acted upon, brought our scenes to life. Writing warmups do the same things for writers.

Sure, it’s probably somewhat helpful to get your fingers in typing order. I do find that to be the case for me. But the real benefit of a good warmup is that it shifts you into a headspace that can better serve your writing.

Here are the components and types of exercises that I find help get the writer into that groovy, judgment-free, and creative headspace.

Mind-dump free-write

The first thing on my agenda is almost always an exercise that lets me just throw all of my current thoughts and feelings onto the page. If I’m preoccupied with being upset with my boyfriend or keeping track of all the things I have to do later, then I’m not going to be able to focus on the writing work at hand.

So before I try to do anything “creative,” I give myself at least three to five minutes to just vomit that stuff up. I free-write, as fast as I can and as sloppily as need be, about whatever is going on for me.

The additional benefit of this sort of thing is that it gets me writing in my own voice, and it does so in a completely casual way. Because this writing is “unimportant,” I can start to get into a rhythm without having to reach for anything.

Now, let’s say I’m not preoccupied with anything and I feel pretty calm. That’s great, but I still need a casual warm-up to get things going. In this case, I might…

Free-write on a random word

Or I’ll…

Make lists

The secret to lists is making them fun and open-ended. Ideally, a good list prompt makes you want to write a few words or even a sentence.

Here are a couple of lists I made recently:

Screencap by the author
Screencap also by the author

If I’m short on time or not writing working on fiction or screenwriting that day, then I may move right on to brainstorming the project at hand.

If, however, there are imaginary people, places, and events to deal with, then I like to do one more exercise to get me working in that headspace. My favorite is…

Photo Inspiration

I’ll pull up Unsplash and search for a random photo that strikes my fancy. I want to find one that brings to mind a certain type of person or situation, and I wait until I find one that resonates with me. Once I find it, I’ll copy and paste it into my document, start my timer, and write whatever comes out.

Here’s one of the photos I’ve chosen in the past:

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

And here’s an unedited example of what I wrote in the next seven minutes after choosing it:

Screencap by the author. (Can you tell I listen to true crime podcasts?)

Because I give myself a time limit and because the results of the exercise aren’t meant to be used for anything else, I can experience a sense of freedom in a storytelling space.

That feeling of freedom and exploration is so key here. You have to be ready to follow your intuition and allow your brain to go in unexpected directions.

If a photo doesn’t work for you, then there are…


Maybe a piece of instrumental music, a word, or a half-baked character (example: a teenager who “knows she’s going to hell”) will do the trick. Or maybe you decide to quickly write out a personal story from your life as though it happened to someone else.

That’s it!

In the end, I’ll probably spend ten to twenty minutes warming up, depending on the day. It’s not a lot of time, but I find that it can be the difference between a productive writing session that feels good and one that doesn’t go anywhere.

Of course, there will always be crappy writing days. It happens. But when we warm up in a way that works for us, I find that we have a much higher likelihood of feeling successful in the writing that follows.

Another thing worth noting is that you may find things in your warmup that become really good content. You might accidentally create a character or a location or some other kernel of a story.

Or, on a more personal level, you might get a little more in touch with your feelings. You may realize what’s been bothering you, or you might remember some special thing you used to do as a kid and would like to do again.

The primary thing, however, is that by doing a good writing warmup, you get yourself into a headspace for writing that is going to allow you to write with more spontaneity, more productivity, and hopefully, more honesty.

Elan is also a writing mentor, helping aspiring writers hone their craft and develop their authentic writing selves. If you’d like to subscribe to the write with elan! email list, click here: https://www.subscribepage.com/b5j6t7

Writer and Writing Mentor. Screenwriter. Honest. Human. She/Her. @elancassandra on Instagram, @ElanCDuensing on Twitter. https://linktr.ee/elancassandra

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