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Three ways to use word riffs

One of my favorite writer’s tools is to practice word riffs. To me, word riffing is like playing a musical instrument (of course, that’s where the term riffing comes from). I’m learning to play guitar and one of the things I like to do is randomly strum away, making up my own little songs (often sung to my cats and starring their names—they just love that).

First, some tips for word riffing:

  • Make it fun and playful. Don’t make it serious—if the right word doesn’t come this time, know that it will next time.
  • Use a timer and write fast without stopping. This helps keep me focused and to the point. It allows me to go deeper and find more gems. I set my timer for 5 to 7 minutes.
  • Let it all out—first, you have to dump the garbage to make room for the treasures. Think of decluttering your office space. Once you get rid of the clutter, everything seems to flow better, doesn’t it? It’s the same thing with your brain. Write down everything that comes to your mind—the dumb words, the clichés, etc. If you don’t, you’ll just be storing it to come out later.
  • You can use word riffing for a phrase as well as one single word. Though I find focusing on one word at a time easier and more fun!

Below are three ways I use word riffs. If you have any ideas for using this great writer’s tool, please share!

  1. Poetry: to me, writing poetry is like working a puzzle. In hunting for just the right word, I look for not only the right meaning but also pay attention to things like alliteration and the musicality of the word in the line.
  2. Prose: to find the right word for a paragraph or a metaphor or simile. The above statement applies here too. Additionally, in prose, word riffing helps me go deeper and find more original metaphors or similes. Usually, the first thing that comes to mind is the least original so it’s helpful to write it down to get it out of my head so I can find the good stuff.
  3. Characterization: to help me discover more about a character. I pretend I’m one of my characters while doing a word riff. In my current work, a male character has onset Alzheimer’s. I use word riffing to find out more about him as a man (I’m not a man and don’t have any brothers) and to delve deeply into his mind to see how he views the world through his disease. To read about using stream of consciousness writing to delve deeper into the minds of your characters, read my previous post.

Word riffing is a great writer’s tool. You owe it to yourself to become comfortable with it because it WILL make your writing better. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Soon, you’ll be word riffing automatically.

Exercise: Use a timer. Word riff once or twice a day for 6 minutes. Do it at the beginning of a writing session as a warm up. For other ways to use a timer read this post.

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