Writing with constraints
a guest post from Terry Freedman
Welcome to Writing in Company. Usually, I drop into your email on Wednesdays with a writing prompt. Today’s post is an extra bonus—the first in a series of very occasional guest posts, with writing ideas and prompts from other writers on Substack.
If you are new here and want to see my usual sorts of posts, take a look back through the archive. Find a writing prompt that resonates, and let your words loose on the page. Or, grab your pen and paper and read on for inspiration from today’s guest.
I’m delighted to introduce you to the engaging UK writer Terry Freedman. I first read Terry’s words through his entertaining Substack series of letters back and forth with Rebecca Holden. When Terry later posted a note about his topic below, the writing workshop leader in me recognized a category of writing exercises I have used and shared, but never knew it was a thing with a name. I asked Terry if he would share more with my readers, and he obliged. Enjoy!
Writing with constraints
A big thanks to Julie for inviting me to write a guest post for her newsletter on writing prompts. I hope you find the suggestions in this article interesting and useful.
What could be more counterintuitive than imposing constraints on ourselves when sitting down to write? Many writers – perhaps most – suffer from writer’s block at some time or other, and the usual advice for dealing with that blank page or screen staring back at you accusingly is to just start writing. Write about anything, the first thing that comes into your mind. With a bit of luck you’ll end up with something you can use, a sentence or an idea that you can regard as a writing prompt. Occasionally I have used this approach myself, but I find it a bit hit and miss, and the result often uninspiring. For me, the approach I like best is the constrained one. Let me explain.
I first came upon the idea of constrained writing when browsing in a bookshop. There was a book on display called The Penguin Book of Oulipo. Oulipo? Never heard of it. Further investigation led me to discover that it’s a French writing movement, the name being an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates as Workshop of Potential Literature. Note the term potential literature. The aim isn’t to produce complete works – although some writers, notably Georges Perec, have indeed done so – but to try things out to see what comes out of it. At least, that’s my own interpretation. Perhaps the best explanation comes from one of the founders of the Oulipo, Raymond Queneau:
“Oulipians are rats who construct the labyrinth from which they then try to escape.”
So much for introduction, but what does it mean in practice? I can best answer that by giving some examples of Oulipian constraints that you might like to have a go at yourself.
An acrostic is a piece of text in which there is a hidden word created from letters within the words. The usual approach is to take the first letter of each word. For example, in the following paragraph I have named the drink I always start the day with. What is it?
There is nothing I like more than a refreshing drink. Every morning I make a beeline for the kettle before I do anything else. And even that is not soon enough.
The drink, of course, is tea. This is unlikely to enter the realm of great literature, but think about how you might use the idea. One thing I did a couple of years ago was write a review of a literature course I had enrolled on, including the fact that there was one author whose work I didn’t like at all. The name of that author was hidden in plain sight, because the first letter of each sentence spelt out her name. You could do something similar if you write a short story in, say, the detective genre.
No chance or human intervention
The acrostic idea exemplifies a central tenet of the Oulipo: that chance should not play a role. This sets it apart from techniques like “write the first thing that comes into your head” because most of the techniques force you into being very creative, but within a rigid framework. Examples of such techniques include:
Word limit: set a maximum word limit of, say 70 words for a book review.
Lipogram: write a piece of text without using a particular letter.
Tautogram: write a piece of text in which each word starts with the same letter.
Assuming you intend to write something that is not merely a number of random words strung together, these techniques demand that you think of different ways of saying something in order to satisfy the (self-imposed) condition. Because of this I believe that using Oulipo techniques can make you a better writer.
As for removing human intervention, this comes about by imposing on yourself a rigid framework. For example, if you’ve decided that you’re going to write something as an acrostic, you’re compelled to select words that will enable the acrostic to be created.
Chance after all
However, it is not always easy to completely dispense with chance or human intervention. Here are three examples of Oulipian techniques that do have an element of chance at work.
The metro poem: when on a train journey, compose a poem (or prose) in your head as the train is travelling between stations. Then, when the train stops at a station, write as much of it down as you can before the train starts moving again. Time is the most obvious constraint here, but another constraint in effect is the number of stations on your journey. This will vary according to where you’re starting from and where you’re going to finish.
Preverb: this is where you take the first half of one proverb and merge it with the second part of another. For example, I’ve just come up with: A bird in the hand saves nine. However you get to choose which proverbs to employ, so there is still an element of human intervention.
N + 7: this is where you take some text, or write something new, and then replace every noun with the seventh noun along in the dictionary. For example, I’ve just changed “I took a carton of milk with me on the train” to “I took a carton of mineral with me on the transition”. But bear in mind that the result you get will depend on the dictionary you use.
So where does all this get us? Aha!
Remember that the Oulipo is a workshop of potential literature. The idea of these techniques, especially the preverb and N + 7, is that they help to generate new ideas. For example, take my preverb, A bird in the hand saves nine. That suggests to me an idea for a story in which a bird saves nine people trapped in a cave, by alerting the authorities or, perhaps less far-fetched, a trained pigeon being used to take a message to someone who can alert the appropriate authorities. As for the N + 7, “I took a carton of mineral with me on the transition” suggests to me some sort of sci-fi story or spy thriller.
There are far more techniques available than I have room to go into here, but here are some articles you might find useful if you’d like to explore further.
Three collections of Oulipo writing contains reviews of three compendiums of examples of Oulipian writing.
Try Oulipo techniques and cure your writer’s block contains information on other constraints.
Finally, Raymond Queneau wrote a number of variations of the same story in different styles. I’ve been trying this in a series called Experiments in Style. I’ve really learnt a lot from doing this (including my own limitations!). I publish a new variation each Sunday at 16:30 UK time. You can read more about this project, including information about Queneau’s book and an index to the styles I’ve tried so far, here:
If you like the sound of that, why not subscribe to my newsletter at
Thanks for reading. I hope you found this useful.
Many thanks, Terry!
Let us know in the comments what you think, or if you try one of the Oulipo prompts Terry shared. And be sure and check out more of his writing at Eclecticism: Reflections on literature and life.
Want to share your own idea for a writing prompt? Read more about it here:
Writing in Company is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.