Embracing and Imposing Constraints for Writing

If only I had more money.  If only I had more space.  If only I had more time on the assignment.  If only I had better resources or materials.  We all experience limitations that bump against our expectations and ambitions.  Like children (or cows in a pasture), we often believe better opportunities lie on the other side of the fence.  However, constraints can steer us to learn new things, sharpen our skills, foster collaboration, and promote problem-solving and creativity.

When the comedy troupe Monty Python wanted to make Monty Python and the Holy Grail, big production studios turned them down.  With a smaller purse (one that held funding from Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and others), Monty Python went ahead with a low-budget comedy that continues to entertain across generations and continents.  The constraints meant that instead of setting the story in both the Middle Ages and the twentieth century, they focused on the Middle Ages.  Instead of using the many castles they originally scouted, they used fewer—including one castle that represented three.  Instead of real horses, the characters mimicked riding while someone followed behind, knocking coconut shells together (Morgan).  Would the movie have been as funny with a bigger budget and a more polished production company? Would the coconut shells have made it in?

Author Seth Godin doubts it.  In his book, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, he asks “Have you ever noticed that big-budget comedies are almost never funny?” (Godin 241).  Godin recognizes the benefits of constraints in the final section of The Practice and encourages working creatives to actively seek them out.

While the writing constraints I’m suggesting will not likely yield hilarious adventures, they will illustrate that imposed limits can help us become better writers in three ways.  They can escort us to the page when needed, challenge us to improve and expand our creativity, and improve the quality of our writing.

Constraints to get us to and through the work

Constraints such as assigned topics, deadlines, and page limits or word counts help us get the work done.  They get us moving when we would otherwise be paralyzed by too much choice or dawdling our days away.  Deadlines mean we can’t wait for inspiration.  Assigned topics and assignment lengths (when used responsibly) keep our thinking and research focused and deep as opposed to broad and shallow.

I regularly impose a time constraint (a minimum of seventeen determined minutes) to enhance my motivation and focus.  I use writing prompts when needed.  I also choose to do my rough work, notes, and early drafts on paper.  Like the walls of a study carrel, these limits block out my options and distractions, helping me focus only on the page and work I have to do in this sprint.

Constraints that challenge and inspire

Creative writers use many constraints to sharpen their skills and enhance creativity and originality.  For example, in writing a sonnet, we have a limit of 14 lines, a prescribed rhyme scheme, and a recommended number of syllables per line.  Plus, depending on which type of sonnet we choose, we have to organize the subject matter into sestets and octets, or quatrains and couplets.  We’re considering imagery, rhythm, diction, theme, and other poetic devices.

Flash fiction is the shortest of short stories, ranging from a few words to a few hundred.  Limits challenge us but also help determine the scope of content.  The writer must consider what dramatic elements will fit best in a frame of this size.

Maybe you’re brave enough to try some other forms of constrained writing.  How about lipograms (deliberately avoiding words containing a particular letter)? What about drabbles (containing only a hundred words) or maybe six-word memoirs? Admit it, these do sound kind of fun.

Constraints that clear the clutter

Certain constraints (like word counts or limits on paragraph or sentence length) can force us to evaluate the effectiveness of every word.  William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, estimates that “most first drafts can be cut by fifty percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice” (Zinsser 16).  We sharpen our writing by continually asking ourselves if our language is concrete, concise, and clear.  Can I make this sentence or paragraph shorter? Can I cut adverbs, adjectives, or vague wording? Can I use more specific verbs or nouns?

While revising non-fiction works or academic papers, we could enforce a limit of one well-presented topic per paragraph.  Go back to basics.  Begin with a topic sentence.  Supply our explanations and support.  Then conclude and connect to the next paragraph.  Constraints can build better paragraphs and thus improve clarity, flow, and pacing for the reader.

If we’re clear about who our readers are, we can devise and apply targeted constraints accordingly.  Maybe shorter sentences are in order.  Maybe our draft is too wordy.  MS Word offers readability statistics on how many words, paragraphs, and sentences are in the document.  It provides averages of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word.  It also tells us the score for Flesch Reading Ease, the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level, and the percentage of passive sentences in the document.  Another tool is the Hemingway Editor, which can provide a readability score and draw attention to adverbs, passive voice, and complicated phrasing.

These are just a few examples of constraints we can apply to our writing practice.  Through deadlines, timed sprints, prompts, challenges, style restrictions, and precise language, we’re building skill, creativity, and confidence—skills any writer should be striving for.

“And now for something completely different.” (Monty Python, various)

Godin, Seth.  The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.  Penguin Publishing Group, 2020.
Morgan, David.  Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  2014.  22 January 2024. Retrieved from https://www.montypython.com/film_Monty%20Python%20and%20the%20Holy%20Grail%20(1975)/15.
Zinsser, William.  On Writing Well.  Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006.