Just Five Words

by Nancy Johnston


Exercise purpose
The purpose of this exercise is to help creatives who are working on writing projects reconnect with their projects and make small steps toward restarting or kickstarting the writing process. It will also support creative people who identify as inexperienced writers or nonwriters. It can also be adapted for use with creatives in all the disciplines.

Exercise description 

This is an idea-generating exercise that promotes “out loud” thinking and pre-writing. The creativity coach will need a few materials: scrap paper (or cue cards or stickies), a pad of paper, and pens or pencils. The coach will encourage the creative to work on paper, if there are no mobility concerns, as this may help avoid fears associated with the blank screen. The creative is invited to work in incremental steps: to think of ideas, to print or write key words, to talk about their ideas, and finally to write.

The coach begins by asking the creative to do a relatively low-stakes task: to identify five words related to their project. A coach might prompt with the following sorts of question:

+ What five words (or phrases) does your project need?

+ What five words (or phrases) do you want in the title of your project?

+ What five words (or phrases) are essential to include in an imaginary advertisement for your gallery show, your book launch, or musicial performance?

Creatives are given five minutes for the preliminary task and are invited to print or write large. Alternatively, the coach might suggest that the creative circle or underline five words in a draft or in some other project.

The next step is to ask the creative to talk about the five words and their connections to each other. While their thoughts about possible connections are fresh in their minds, I typically will ask my client to arrange the words in a mind-map or to brainstorm about them.

The final step is to prompt a list of sentences using these words. The five words are building blocks that they can use to get ideas out on paper and to see concrete progress in their writing process.

As homework

These techniques work well with visual learners and with creatives who might not currently describe themselves as successful or confident.

Most creatives are asked to write artist statements, apply for grant proposals, participate in reviews, etc. If an artist is working at home on such a task, he or she might try this exercise as a daily timed exercise or as a daily beginning activity.

Some artists have tried using different media, such as painting the words into artwork or writing them separately on pages of an art journal as prompts. This exercise can be used at any point when the writing process feels stalled or overwhelming. In the middle of a project, the creative might identify key terms in a draft paragraph to help clarify the direction of the work in progress.


Mel had been accepted into a prestigious group art show. She acknowledged it was an opportunity to showcase her new work and meet other local artists. However, she felt stuck when she started writing her artist statement, which only needed to be a short 250-word statement about her work. Although it was only to be a short statement, the task felt daunting to her.

“I’m not a writer,” she said. “I know my work, that’s not the problem. I’m just not confident in how I express what my work’s about. What if I make myself look foolish?”

She always disliked writing essays in college and preferred visual expression. To enter the group show she had written about her artwork and submitted her work. Now that she was accepted, writing the short statement felt derailing. I suggested that maybe that her written application might be a good place to begin. I asked her to quickly circle all the essential words or phrases that she liked.

“What words – single words or very short phrases only — jump out at you? Don’t evaluate them, rather claim them. And if the words you need aren’t there, are there maybe other words that you need in your artist statement?”

Mel marked up her page and circled repeated words and terms: bronze, sculpture, history, body, space. I asked her to own these words and explain why they seemed important. After a short explanation, I suggested she write briefly or map the connections visually between them.

“How do some of these words fit together? Can you link two terms, as you would in a mind-map branch?” She began placing words together in pairs. I suggested she might give herself prompts or ask more questions.

Mel added verbs and wrote down new, simple sentences using some of her original words. I suggested that she might continue this work in a draft artist statement.

For her “homework,” I suggested that she try using the following sentence stems:

+ I make [sculpture] …

+ I work with this medium [sculpture] to express how [the body]…

+ My work explores [the body/ space]…

+ I am interested in ideas about [space] and [history] because…

+ In my work, I examine how [history] …

Mel finished her short artist statement in time to make her deadline. She didn’t claim that she now felt more confident as a writer, but she was happy with her progress and her statement. She liked playing with her words and suggested that they were also touchstones that could help her prepare for talking about her work on opening night.

About Nancy Johnston

Nancy Johnston is a writer, teacher, textile artist, and writing coach living in Toronto. She teaches courses in writing, gender and disability studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough where she also works with instructors and students on academic writing. Her creative passions include facilitating workshops on writing and textile art for expressive and restorative play.

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