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Thursday, February 18, 2021

Constrain Me, Baby!

Guest blogger Shadow talks about how to get a little kinky with your writing and spice it up by tying it down.

[Note: there are some formatting issues in this post. Unfortunately, this could not be helped. It is a regrettable side effect of a guest blog with a LOT of formatting. Normally I "paste and match style" (which drops the article in paragraph form) and then go back and make the format look like the author intended, but with a dozen links, multiple font and format changes, and eleven sections, I had to do a regular cut and paste and some of the formatting issues stuck around.]

Are things getting boring in the bedroom (or wherever you do your writing)? Finding yourself in a writing rut? Or perhaps you are a fellow “spoonie” and the normal challenges of sitting down to write are compounded by illness and variable daily capacity. Consider adding some kink to your writing relationship with constrained writing! It’s like a little light bondage for your writing practice (or heavy bondage if you swing that way!), and it can have incredible benefits for your creativity, motivation, and skills! 

Constrained writing means writing within prescribed parameters or under specific constraints or rules. All writing is done within constraints already.  Language use, grammar, punctuation, genre conventions, and more all shape a writer’s composition. But constrained writing is the kinky, swinger cousin that takes everything a bit beyond vanilla.

You are probably already familiar with some types of constrained writing. Poetry has many constrained forms. Haiku constrains the syllable count and lines, as do sonnets. Limericks are constrained in both beats and rhyme scheme. Acrostic poems must spell a word or phrase with the first letter of each line. Diamante poetry is constrained by both the number and relative length of the lines.

But, lo, I hear you cry, you are not a poet but a writer of prose or even narrative nonfiction. Never fear! Constrained writing has benefits for writers across the genre spectrum. Constrained writing pushes writers to sharpen their creativity, break out of habitual writing patterns, and stretch their skills in new directions. 

Constrained writing can help break writer’s block. It can support you in developing a daily writing practice (especially if you struggle with blank page paralysis). It can broaden your vocabulary and power up your revision. 

Forcing yourself to practice with constraints can break you from habitual writing patterns that we all risk overusing thus falling into a writing rut. 

Practicing constrained writing is like heavy lifting to bulk up your creative writing muscles. As Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”  Kinky!

There are MANY different styles of constrained writing. (Maybe as many as there are styles of bondage!) To begin with, there are constraints that apply to letters (as in the alphabet). Let’s explore a few.

Lipogram and Reverse Lipogram

Lipogram comes from the Greek for “missing letter.” A lipogram constrains the writer by barring the use of words containing a particular letter or group of letters. A. Ross Eckler famously rewrote the nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb” as “Mary had a Lipogram” by omitting the letter E (and writing versions missing other letters and even groups of letters). Not only does this version contain no words with the letter E, Eckler amazingly also preserves the meter and rhyme scheme!

Mary had a tiny lamb,

It’s wool was pallid as snow,

And any spot that Mary did walk,

This lamb would always go.

This lamb did follow Mary to school,

Although against a law,

How boys and girls did laugh and play,

That lamb in class saw all.

Reverse lipograms require that every word contains a given letter rather than eliminating a letter. Lower the challenge by using commonly used letters like E or T, or ramp up the intensity with G, M, or P!

Both lipogram and reverse lipogram constrained writing are great ways to practice composing original works, as well as to convert already written pieces. Try rewriting nursery rhymes, Shakespeare quotes, or even sections of your own finished writing under a lipogrammatic or reverse lipogrammatic constraint. You may surprise yourself and find some good revision material in your experiments! In addition, rewriting already completed work with a lipogrammatic constraint can be a great way to get some writing practice done when creating new content feels overwhelming. (I see you depression and ADHD!)


Similar to lipograms, this style of constrained writing requires each successive word, sentence, or stanza to begin with the corresponding letter of the alphabet.

You can apply this constraint at a sentence level, or as Walter Abish did in his 1974 Abecedarian novel, Alphabetical Africa, each chapter allowed an additional letter. Ie. Chapter 1 - every word began with A, Chapter 2 - every word began with A or B until Chapter 27 which was written without restraint. The following chapters each removed one letter of the alphabet in reverse order, so Chapter 28 was written without any words starting with Z and so on until the end of the book was back to only A again. Another example is Chaucer’s medieval composition “An ABC (The Prayer of our Lady)” where each stanza begins with the next letter of the alphabet.

Like lipograms and reverse lipograms, abecedarian writing can really push your vocabulary and broaden your lexical comfort zone! And like any constraint, you can apply it in so many different ways! Do what works best for you!


Rhopalism is the constraint that in a given sentence, each word is successively a single letter longer than the previous word. For example: I do not know which animal savaged elephant scientist Strawberry Washington. 

In 1965 the linguist and author, Dmitri Borgmann, composed this magnificent example: “I do not know where family doctors acquired illegibly perplexing handwriting; nevertheless, extraordinary pharmaceutical intellectuality, counterbalancing indecipherability, transcendentalizes intercommunications’ incomprehensibleness.” Wow! Wasn’t he quite the cunning linguist?

Pilish (or Piems)

Similar to rhopalism, pilish (or piems - a portmanteau of pi and poems) constrains the writer to compose a text with succeeding words having the same number of letters as the digits of the number pi. Math kink anyone?

The letter count of each word in the mnemonic, “How I wish I could calculate pi,” matches pi to seven places (3.141592…). And yes, zero is accounted for, too! In pilish, the digit 0 is represented with a ten-letter word. 

In 1996, Mike Keith wrote a short story called “Cadaeic Cadenza” using the first 3,834 digits of pi. In 2010, he published Not a Wake, a 10,000 word book written entirely in pilish.

Since you should always play with a safeword, the website YouGoWords.com will find and list words by letter count, beginning or ending letter, syllables, and more! (I may have had to tap out and use their help more than once in my own constrained writing practice!)

If constraining letters is too constricting for you, there are many ways to constrain at the word level! The genre of flash fiction includes a number of word-count restricted styles within which an author must convey a complete story arc.

Dribbles/Mini-Sagas/Microfiction - exactly 50 words (+15 for the title)

Fifty-Word Stories

Drabbles - exactly 100 words

100-Word Stories

Twiction (Twitter Fiction) - exactly 140 characters (I know! But it fits here!)

You asked me to edit your memoir. It was much more satisfying after I replaced her name with mine.

-C.A. Chancellor, Nanoism Magazine, May 8, 2013

6-Word Memoirs  - exactly, well, six words

6-Word Memoirs

Flash fiction can present a writing challenge to compose incredibly tight and well structured writing to fit the length constraints. This is amazing practice, especially for writers like myself who tend to get carried away with their words. It also, ironically, can feel more accessible because it is such a contained task (you aren’t trying to plot an entire novel). 

Flash fiction isn’t the only way to constrain at the word level. If length restrictions aren’t your jam, consider restricting the types of words you can use!

Mandated Vocabulary

Mandated vocabulary encompasses a broad range of constraints about the number or type of words that can be used in a piece of writing. Perhaps the most well-known example of a mandated writing constraint is Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham which was written after Seuss’ publisher made a bet that Seuss couldn’t write an entire book using no more than 50 different words.

Paul Griffiths’ 2008 novel, let me tell you, was written using only the words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (483 different words). The 2004 novel, Never Again by Doug Nufer, did not use any word more than once. 

English-Prime, or E-Prime is a type of mandated vocabulary in which a writer cannot use any form of the verb “to be”. This is a fantastic constraint to practice revising sections of work, particularly if you are trying to do more showing and less telling. For example, the sentence, “He was old,” might become, “Time had etched deep lines onto his face.” 

You can choose any kind of word to constrain and push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you find yourself overusing adverbs, force yourself to rewrite a section without any. Try writing without adjectives. Even writing without nouns or verbs can spark creative and divergent thinking and use of language which you can carry over into your regular writing.

Mandated vocabulary can be a fantastic writing exercise, but if you are really struggling to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) you can even work your creative writing brain without actually writing a word.


Erasure is blacking out all of the words on a printed text except the ones which tell a story or poem. This is a fantastic creative writing process for days when writing is too daunting a task. If you are inclined toward the visual arts, you can even make images or designs of the blacked out areas.


If you appreciate social interaction, this type of constraint may be for you. It’s kinky group writing! Aleatory is writing using words or phrases that are provided by the reader (think Mad Libs). 

Though originally applied to music in which random dice throws determined the music played, you can have friends generate words from which you will compose a piece of prose or poetry. 

You may constrain your friends (wink wink) by asking for words from particular parts of speech or particular character length or starting letter, or you may go big and take any words they offer. You may choose to use only their words like a kind of magnetic poetry challenge, or you may choose to fill in your own words around those provided to you. You may even choose to write the frame of a story without certain words and let your readers fill in the blanks themselves as they read - providing an interactive and unique experience each time your piece is read!

Exquisite Corpse

Similar to aleatory, Exquisite Corpse is truly a group-composed piece. Members of the group may write words or phases on pieces of paper which are put into a hat then drawn at random to compose a text (think those magnetic poetry kits again). Alternatively, you may have one person write a line, then the next person write another line that fits, and so on through the group. 

This can even be done on Facebook! To increase the constraint, post your prompt and set a limit on the number of responses you will take (ie. only the first ten) to ramp up the competition.

You can modify this in many ways. You may even like to have a group write a shared piece where only the last three words of the piece before it are shown to the next person in line. They must then use those words as their first three and so on. 

Exquisite Corpse and other group-writing activities can be a fun way to break out of the isolation of the writing process and get some friends to inspire and motivate you to keep writing!

There are so many flavors of constrained writing, you can truly choose your own kinky writing adventure! You may find that just adapting an already written piece to fit a constraint inspires you to work on that other piece of writing you started that’s been gathering dust. 

You may find that on those really difficult writing days, having a constraint to write to ironically feels more freeing than the uncontained potential of a blank page. 

You may do many pieces of constrained writing that live forever in your private journal, or you may find that bits and pieces of your constrained practice find themselves worked into your work-in-progress! 

You can try an established style or get extra kinky and create your own. Whatever you write and however you choose to use it, constrained writing can be an amazing lever to keep handy in your writer’s toolbox.

[Note from Chris: I have a writing prompt that follows the basic idea of constraining your writing here.]


Shadow is a writer and blogger at https://sanctumia.com/.  She maintains a “vanilla” blog as well which must remain nameless for purposes of mystery and intrigue and because discrimination is still a thing. She has been writing fiction for 38 years and discovered the power of narrative nonfiction writing 13 years ago. She writes in the intersections between mental illness, power exchange relationships, and social justice. 

If you would like to write a thinly veiled promo for your own work guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

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