Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Riff Writing

A riff is an improvised solo—a musician going with the feeling of the moment to create some original music. Some riffs become part of a studio recording. Others live and die on the stage.

A couple years ago I took a workshop with Elizabeth Lyon, author of Manuscript Makeover, and she introduced me to Riff Writing. I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Now Riff Writing is part of my revision process.

Here’s how it works:

Start at a specific spot in your manuscript, maybe a character’s feeling or attitude, or a memory, or a specific setting. Just jump off from that spot and start writing. Dig deep and follow it where it goes, however illogical it may seem. Resist your first impulse to stop. Instead, keep writing and see what you produce. Maybe a brilliant analogy. Or a cutting phrase as sharp as obsidian.

Yes, you might overwrite, and that’s okay. Later you can go back and decide what’s suitable for the studio.

Sometimes I highlight my riffs in green. I cut much of what I write, but often end up keeping the last parts, words I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t done the riff.

Riff Writing has helped me with characterization and scene building. I’ll take a scene that I’d considered finished and let the characters keep interacting. That new material sometimes becomes the bulk of the scene.

Have you ever tried Riff Writing or something similar? How did it work for you?


  1. Great post. I love the suggestion!

  2. Interesting idea, Paul. I think this would be a good exercise for writing students too. I don't exactly do this, but sometimes when I'm stuck, I will long a long description of something just to feel like I'm writing, and and I do end up using a phrase or two from that.

  3. Interesting idea. It's so cool how different creative disciplines overlap sometimes. I'm going to try this.

  4. Interesting idea. It's so cool how different creative disciplines overlap sometimes. I'm going to try this.

  5. Love this concept. Do you find you feel freer while riff writing and therefore produce work that is less careful or guarded or (fill in the blank with your filter/screen)?

    1. Hmmmm....? I guess I'd say freer b/c I'm not as focused on plot and what has come before and after in the draft I've written, but more on..searching for a term.. the mirco-exploration of the scene or what the scene could become, which could in-tern change some of the plot in other parts of the draft. Does that make sense? :-0


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!