Oct 27, 2016 by Emily Diffenderfer Writing

Writing Calisthenics

As some of us may have mentioned, our team has grown and changed a lot this year. I rejoined the team as technical content editor after a short break, and discovered we had nearly doubled the size of our department! With a lot of new writers on board, I worried about developing our team and maintaining a consistent voice.

So often, our days are an endless rush of quick updates or agonizing rewrites, product group meetings, and constant pings from everyone you know. When the day is over, it’s errands or family time, and hoping to find a minute to yourself. It can be hard to think critically about the work you do all day, when you just need to check everything off your list.

I guess I’ve always been a bit of a “school nerd,” and it crossed my mind that at conferences and workshops, I get to reset and reflect or focus on something new. I realized, maybe we could all benefit from some time like that.

xkcd comic: 38 days since someone reset this sign.

We’ve had a standing writers’ meeting for a while now, where we review recent questions and updates to the style guide. Why not use this time for some work-related mindfulness or skill-building?

Our process goes something like this:

  • I formulate an exercise and distribute it to writers in advance via email.
  • Writers submit their responses for me to review.
  • I’ll build an agenda or series of questions based on their responses, and compile the entries into a document to share.
  • In the meeting, everyone has the opportunity to present their solutions, and we discuss.
  • After the meeting, I’ll share the document, and everyone can continue to comment on the submissions.

We’ve done technical and process-oriented exercises, as well as ones that generate more existential discussions about our writing philosophies.  

One writer called the whole thing “low stakes editing.” Which is a good way to think about it— there’s not always a right or wrong answer when you’re editing, but it’s a fun exercise to edit in a vacuum.


You might learn that you approached something the same way as a colleague, or that your solution was preferred among the group. The opportunity to try things, ask questions, and share your ideas in a non-deadline, non-publishing environment can be very helpful for learning new things and building confidence.

There were some concerns that “assignments” like this would feel like busy work, or that they would take time away from our “actual work.” But I feel very strongly that since our jobs are to be technical experts, that this is our “actual work.”

Part of any job is continuous skill-building and experience-sharing. Even more, dedicating time to solve a collective problem is a form of team-building as well.

My favorite exercise was to share a piece of writing advice you’ve received. We compiled those pieces of advice into a document, and it’s something I look at periodically. Every sentence should carry its own idea. Don’t start at the beginning. Write what you mean. Oh, and this gem from Anne Lamott.

Each exercise is a doorway to a discussion. And often, one exercise leads to another. Whether the exercise or its discussion leads to a concrete solution or a new process in our team, or just gives us a chance to reconnect with our passion for writing, it’s always a productive way to spend a meeting.

What writing advice do you live by?


  • Casey F

    12.15.2016 - reply

    Sometimes I get mentally paralyzed when I start work on a new feature. I always have to remind myself of some advice my thesis advisor gave me in college: “the first draft is always perfect”. No, it’s not like, final form perfect.

    The first draft is perfect because all it has to do is exist. That’s literally all I expect from it — that it’s there. This is usually enough to push-start my writing process.

  • Rolando Santiago

    10.20.2017 - reply

    I like the way this is put simply and to the point. I would like to see more of this, more often.