The Power of Creative Constraints in Tiny Writing

The Power of Creative Constraints in Tiny Writing

By: Laura Gibbs & Heather Kretschmer

Authors’ note: The illustrations and photos in our article were generously shared by some creative people from the Daily Create community. Our heartfelt thanks to Sheri Edwards, Kevin Hodgson, Sarah Honeychurch, Ron Leunissen, and Alan Levine.

How do constraints prompt creativity? If you have ever played a solitaire card game like FreeCell or Klondike, you know something about the power of creative constraints—the cards come up at random, and there are strict rules about which cards you can move in order to clear the board. What are you going to do? Which cards will you move? As you make your choices and move the cards within the limits of the game’s constraints, you try to find a creative solution, something unforeseen and not obvious at first, a set of moves that will allow you to win the game… while having fun in the process.

Many forms of verbal art also depend on constraints. Various forms of poetry, for example, have rules about syllables and rhythm, and rhyme. Those constraints then lead to creative new forms of expression. Being able to write within those constraints can also produce the same kind of ultimate pleasure, and also intermittent frustration, that you experience while playing a game like FreeCell. And when we stop to think about it, all of discourse involves constraints within which creativity can happen.

Much of the written discourse students do for school also operates under constraints. How many of us remember writing essays and papers with requirements like “8 pages, double-spaced, 1-inch margins”? Ever find yourself nodding off as your teacher drones on about mundane requirements? On the flip side . . . ever get creative and fiddle with the font to fit in more words or fewer words? Or play around with the size of images to meet that dreaded page requirement? Constraints—even boring ones—can get those creative juices flowing. And creative constraints can take the game to a whole new level. All of discourse is constraint within which creativity can happen.

In this article—the first in a two-part series—we will explore ways you can use creative constraints to engage students in their writing in new ways so that they can develop and improve their writing skills.

Creativity and the Brain

Before we examine creative constraints, we’ll briefly dip into the brain processes that underlie creativity. Unfortunately, scientists don’t fully understand the creative process in the brain. Without doubt, creativity is a complex, whole-brain endeavor. Memory, executive control, mind-wandering, and the interplay of neural networks are all involved in creative thinking.

To be creative, we need to draw on what we have already learned and experienced. This involves memory. One important brain structure involved in remembering past experiences is the hippocampus. It’s also involved in allowing us to imagine what could happen in the future (Beaty, 2020; Duff et al., 2013). Recalling and imagining allows us to form new mental representations out of old ones, in other words, to generate new ideas. And these new ideas we generate don’t need to line up with what we experience in the real world. 

While generating ideas is one important part of creativity, evaluating the feasibility of those ideas is equally important. When we’re evaluating ideas, the hippocampus and the parts of the frontal lobe associated with executive control are active. Executive control includes cognitive functions like setting goals, planning, and making decisions—all necessary steps when searching for a creative solution to a task that has certain constraints.

So, creativity involves 1) combining and recombining “existing mental representations to create novel ideas and ways of thinking” (Duff et al., 2013) and 2) critically evaluating and revising those ideas. How does the brain do this? Intense focus and mind-wandering.

Intense focus and mind-wandering draw on three large-scale brain networks: the central executive network (CEN), the default mode network (DMN), and the salience network (SN) (Goldberg, 2018).

When we’re deliberately thinking about creative solutions to any problem or task (with or without constraints), the CEN is activated. The CEN coordinates different brain regions consciously focused on an external task. 

When we stop actively focusing on the problem at hand, the DMN is activated. The DMN connects brain areas that come online when we’re simply relaxing and not focusing on an external task. At this time, we engage in spontaneous thinking, also known as mind-wandering, during which we remember past events and envision future ones. 

The brain can shift back to concentrating on the external task when there is an unexpected change in sensory input. This triggers the salience network, which serves as a switch from the default mode network to the central executive network. These networks usually operate separately, but interestingly, recent research suggests that creative thinking involves high connectivity between these three networks. In a study, a large number of participants, primarily university students, completed a task where they had to think up creative uses for an everyday object while their brains were scanned (fMRI). The researchers found that participants with stronger functional connections between the CEN, DMN, and SN networks tended to come up with more original ideas (Beaty, 2020). So, it’s through the interplay of the CEN, DMN, and SN that the brain hits upon a feasible creative solution to a task.

Now, let’s see what kinds of writing tasks involving creative constraints we can present to our students!

Laura’s Experience with Tiny Writing Assignments

One type of constraint is to impose a strict maximum word count. You can call it “tiny writing.”

Really tiny.

Like… 100-words tiny.

Curious? Take a look at the two anthologies of microfiction that Laura’s students published in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 which you can find online here. Some of their stories were inspired by own lives (memories of personal experiences), while other stories were inspired by storytelling traditions they had studied in class, “recalling and imagining” in order to form their own creative stories. Sometimes the ideas came to them from mind-wandering, especially as they observed the strangeness of pandemic life taking shape around them; many of the stories were prompted by life changes during the onset of the pandemic. Here’s a somber story by a student who published using their initials only, S.K.[1]

[1] This story and the ones that follow it are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Three Years

On a cold winter evening, an old woman sat by the window staring outside. She smiled as she saw her two boys running around the front yard playing. What would she make them for lunch today? The older son’s favorite was a turkey sandwich while the younger son enjoyed a ham sandwich.

Suddenly, she heard a scream. “Are you boys okay?” she shouted as she rushed out the front door.

A cold hollow wind passed by… but no answer.

It had been three years since the army officers came to deliver her sons’ helmets.

Three years since the war ended.

And on a more light-hearted note, here’s a tiny tale about that cow who jumped over the moon; this is by C. B. (students chose to publish under their own names, by initials, using a pseudonym, or anonymously).

Whatever Pops Into My Head

The cow jumped over the moon.
But he tripped.
His toe got caught on a crater.
He floated through space.
There were no other cows.
Just aliens in their spacecrafts.
He felt lonely.
But yet so at peace.
Why did he try to jump over the moon?
Why was the cow in space?
He drifted further.
He crashed onto Mars.
He walked around Mars.
He met space cows.
He was no longer lonely.
The space cows became his family.
The cow smiled.
He was happy that he tried to jump over the moon.
Don’t worry: cows can breathe in space.

The tiny stories that Laura’s students wrote were creative and, more importantly, the students were motivated to work hard on their stories, revising and polishing them until they were truly excellent. That’s where “execution function” comes in as students processed feedback, re-evaluated their work, and revised their writing repeatedly until they were satisfied with the final product. Even students who were often unconfident about their writing were proud of the tiny writing they produced. It was especially gratifying to see students whose native language wasn’t English feeling pride and confidence in their “tiny tales.”

The length constraint changed the writing process dramatically, and it changed the revision process, too: students wrote less, and they revised more. The clearly defined length boundaries of tiny writing allowed them to have a much stronger focus, and they now had a positive motivation to remove wordy phrases and eliminate anything vague, because every word they could discard made room for new words they could add. It takes less than a minute to read a 100-word story out loud, so students could read and re-read their stories to themselves and to each other, weighing every word. Compare that to reading an 8-page paper out loud, which takes 30 minutes or longer. Far too time-consuming! With shorter writing, the revision process becomes more holistic, and every word counts, literally and figuratively.

In addition, students also gave much better feedback to their peers on these shorter pieces of writing. When they would give feedback on longer writing, you could tell they often had not read the piece carefully from start to finish, so their feedback was very generic, without specific details. When they were providing feedback on 100-word stories, however, you could see from their detailed feedback that students had read the whole story carefully, focusing on specific word choices in the context of the whole story.

Many students also liked the creative challenge of even shorter formats, like “two-sentence stories” or “hint fiction” (just 25 words or fewer). Some students also experimented with 6-word stories. (More about the 6-word story movement here) Those super-short formats are a kind of literary game that the writer and reader play together, with the writer giving something like “clues” to a story which readers must figure out for themselves, becoming co-creators of the story through the process of reading. Here’s a two-sentence story that takes the reader on a wild ride of imagination; this one is by Rachel Goldin:

Shade of Red

I understand the makeup artist doesn’t know what my personal preferences are, and I don’t mean to be obnoxious, but I can’t help my exasperation with the shade of red she’s chosen.

Although, I guess I should cut her some slack, given that it’s probably difficult to make lipstick look vibrant when you’re putting it on a corpse.

As Grant Faulkner says in his book on tiny writing, The Art of Brevity, the creativity of tiny writing involves the reader as much as the writer: “The reader needs to pause, reflect, and fill in the gaps—to be a co-creator.”

What can you do with a single sentence?

For a very easy creative constraint, consider “sentence doodles” as practiced and promoted by Val Dumond (see the list of Recommended Reading below), who has now published three volumes of these one-sentence stories, sometimes hundreds of words long. In addition to being a fun writing activity for a solitary writer, sentence doodles lend themselves to creative collaborative writing. You just seed the doodle with a single phrase, and then let students start building on that phrase in a shared digital document, writing at the same time or joining in asynchronously. They can add on to the beginning or to the ending or insert new material in the middle; the only constraint is that it must remain a single, grammatically correct sentence.

Here’s an example of a double-constraint: a 100-word single-sentence story from one of Laura’s microwriting workshops. For this sentence, “The spaceship landed” was the starting seed:

THE SPACESHIP sat alone, rusting, half-submerged in a hill that rose up like a grassy bubble in the boundless prairie, sitting there as it had been sitting for millennia, its once shiny exterior emblazoned with the symbols of some other civilization now covered over with the green life of this planet, but the tiny laser beacon kept pulsing, pulsing until finally a flock of Canada geese LANDED in a wide circle around it, honking absently yet intentionally, using a language unknown to earthling birds but very familiar to the alien birds they knew were inside the ship, “Sorry we’re late!”

As you can see, a sentence doodle is a great exercise in grammar and punctuation, as well as being a creative writing experience. You can read more sentence doodles from Laura’s workshop students here.

Releasing Creativity

As creativity involves complex neural processes, asking students to write creative fiction may seem daunting at first. But by encouraging students to try their hand at short pieces, like 100-word stories and sentence doodles, we can make creative writing both manageable and enjoyable. Kind of like a game of FreeCell or Klondike: rule-bound yet playful.

Have we whetted your appetite for doable tiny writing projects for students? We’ll be writing a second article with more tiny creative writing ideas in an upcoming MindBrainEd Think Tank issue. Stay tuned!

Recommended Reading

  • Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Kaufman, S. B., & Silvia, P. B. (2015). Default and executive network coupling supports creative idea production. Scientific Reports 5, 10964.

  • Beaty, R. E. (2020). The creative brain. Cerebrum: The Dana forum on brain science, cer-02-20.

  • Duff, M. C., Kurczek, J., Rubin, R., Cohen, N. J., & Tranel, D. (2013). Hippocampal amnesia disrupts creative thinking. Hippocampus, 23(12), 1143–1149.

  • Dumond, V. (Ed.) (2017). One-sentence stories: An anthology of stories told in a single sentence. Muddy Puddle Press.

  • Dumond, V. (Ed.) (2018). Book#2 One-Sentence Stories. Muddy Puddle Press.

  • Dumond, V. (Ed.) (2019). Book#3 One-Sentence Stories. Muddy Puddle Press.

  • Faulkner, G. (2023). The art of brevity. University of New Mexico Press.

  • Gibbs, L. Tiny Tales series, including Tiny Tales of Nasruddin, Tiny Tales from India, Tiny Tales from Africa, and more; free ebooks at

  • Goldberg, E. (2018). Creativity: The human Brain in the age of innovation. Oxford University Press.

  • Smith, L. (ed). (2017). Six words fresh off the boat: Stories of immigration, identity, and coming to America. Kingswell.

  • Weller, D. (2021). Six word wonder workbook: Write your own six-word stories, poems, memoirs, and jokes. Independently published.

Laura Gibbs (Ph.D.) recently retired from 20+ years of teaching courses in mythology and folklore at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of the Creative-Commons-licensed “Tiny Tales” folktale book series, along with folktale scripts for readers theater, which are available free online at

Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently, she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

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