How to Produce Conceptual Writing
1. Have a good idea, a good concept to carry forward. ‘Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts.’ (Goldsmith)
2. Work out a procedure.
3. Carry out the procedure as systematically (even mechanically) as possible
4. Describe in detail your concept and procedure for your ‘thinkership’. ‘You must insist that the procedure was well articulated and accurately executed’, says Kenny G.
5. Don’t worry about appropriating other texts. This plagiarism is in inverted commas. It’s ‘plagiarism’ (I.e., it is a recognised strategy of the work.)
Here is a list of ideas you can adapt to your own purposes.
1. Write down all your dreams and juxtapose with somebody else’s account of dreams or dreaming (maybe a friend or from a book or even Google the word ‘dream’ and collect language). (Peter Jaeger)
2. Re-write a story or book or TV programme from memory. (Emma Kay) Re-write with the thing in front of you. (One or two exercises)
3. Fill the syntax of one piece of writing with the language of another. ‘In the beginning was the word’ becomes ‘In the airlock was the alien.’
4. Take the first page/sentence/word of a text and combine with the second page/sentence/word of another text and so on... (Which texts? Random or not?) (Joseph Kossuth)
5. Take all news items on one day (or other text). Re-arrange sentences alphabetically (Word can do that). Stop there or: use another technique from this list to complicate it. (Leevi Lehto)
6. List every book you see (and maybe the time you see it). It’s a bibliography of contact. (Tan Lin)
7. Amass every document about yourself or another (school reports, dental records, anything that records YOU from the outside). Offer the dossier.
8. Secretly record a conversation. Transcribe it. (Trisha Low: she recorded confession. Warhol: he called it a novel).
9. Alphabetalise a text word by word (your own perhaps? De-regulate yourself). (Rory Macbeth)
10. Use a name and pick out words beginning with the letters in a text written by that name. Damn Inn Colchester Kiss England Never Scrooge and so on.
11. Each word in a text must begin with the same letter sequence that concludes the previous word. i.e, ‘last staff affect ectomorph orphan’. (Donata Mancini).
12. Read each page or paragraph or your diary/essay/short story in turn and write something else, a detached commentary (Sheppard; that's the basic technique of Words Out of Time, see here and here).
13. Write hundreds of sentences and re-order them by selective or random means. (Manson/Sheppard; many prose texts, as in 12, but also throughout.)
14. Take somebody else’s poem and write your name under it. (Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter). Take somebody else’s book and put your name on it. Keep the title and write a new blurb. (You’d need to explain this one: what happens if we read Great Expectations as written by a contemporary person in Ormskirk?) (Kent Johnson/Borges)
15. Translate a text from a language you don’t understand: by sound (homophonic) or word similarity, and any means you can contrive. (Zukofsky/Melnick)
16. Write a text using the first and last sentences of every book you possess (or some other useable batch). (Christof Migone) Or in the middles if you like (Antin) Or make a ‘Cento’, a very old technique dating back to Roman times, making a poem using the first lines of another poet’s works. (Hint: use the index of first lines in a Collected Poems)
17. Anagram texts. Use an online anagram machine to re-write a text line by line, phrase by phrase, whatever unit you choose. See K. Silem Mohammad’s brilliant ‘Sonograms’ based on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Compare with Philip Terry. Write many texts with the same letters. (Betts)
18. Retype a famous text ignoring chapter and paragraph divisions; or put on a blog bit by bit, or use Twitter to narrate in 140 characters per day/hour/minute. (Morris/Place)
19. List everything you own, (Bernstein), every trade mark you see in one day (Nemerov)
20. Collect personal ads and rearrange in terms of interest, time, etc.
21. Arrange all the names of people or places or trademarks or other selected proper nouns, in a (famous?) text on the page where they are approximately in the original. (Parasitic Ventures) Or just the punctuation, or speech marks, whatever works.
22. A list of everything you ate and/or drank over a day/week/month/year. Or some other form of consumption. (Perec)
23. Take lines on one subject from another not about that subject. (All the references to music in a Rebus novel, all the descriptions of countryside in thriller, e.g.) (Rosenfield/Cendrars) Use romance novels to write fake love poems. (Alatalo)
24. Use Google to amass all the similar statements about one place (‘Afghanistan is great’) (Shirinyan). Use Google to find texts to manipulate for many of the exercises here.
25. A text consisting entirely of questions: from sources, or made up or ones you hear on the TV. (Silliman/Sheppard) Arrange the words of somebody notorious as a poem: a killer, a dictator, a monster ...
26. Mash up and sample as many different sources as you can. Assimilate and arrange. (Stefans)
27. Combine the statements of two very different people (like 26 above, only with a second voice). (Sullivan)
28. Devise as many conceptual experiments as you can think of. Don’t DO any of them: make a list of them as the conceptual work itself.
29. Describe an imaginary journey from where you are to the centre of the worst thing that is happening on the news.
30. Replace all the letters in a text (except say ‘t’) with ‘t’. Leave gaps where the t s are.Now explain WHY you did this?
31. Write a long story consisting entirely of paragraph quotations. (Abish)
32. Take a technical or scientific text and extract things that sound ‘poetic’ and make poems out of them. (Antin) Ignore your ignorance.
33. Replace one word that repeats in a text. (e.g. A history book: replace ‘Hitler’ with ‘Dad’ or ‘Bertie Bunny’.)
34. Use excerpts from interviews and attribute the Qs and As to other well-known people. Did they really say that!? (Berrigan)
35. Pick out the words from a famous text and make a new one (Bervin, Philips (cover of Rothenberg-Joris)
36. Lipograms. (Look it up: Bok’s Eunoia).
37. Employ a private detective to follow you and publish the report. Follow a friend and do it to them. (Or, maybe, better not.)
38. Make sonnets (or whatever) out of a famous popular text. (Coolidge’s ‘Bond Sonnets’ from Bond, James Bond!)
39. Collect slogans and catchlines from adverts at great length.
40. Collect the life stories of other people with your name. (Google Whack yourself and your others.) Who are you now?
41. Use word lists to write poems (children’s language, foreign language learning texts, etc)
42. Put the results of any of these exercises into alphabetical order.
43. Write out a novel but only repeat the sentences beginning with ‘I’ or a proper noun, one of the characters. (Fitterman)
44. Take out all the words beginning with ‘un’ – or find something better. (Goldman)
45. Record every work you speak or Record every movement you make or every weather forecast or traffic report you hear. (all Kenneth Goldsmith).
46. List the remarks of somebody stupid. Arrange in stanzas.
The names in brackets refer to originators of the concept groups, mostly drawn from Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing ed. Dworkin, C, and Goldsmith, K., Evanston: Northwestern Uni, 2011.) There is one reference to Rothenberg, Jerome, and Pierre Joris (eds.) (1998) Poems for the Millennium: Volume Two (
None of the above addresses the question of why one might write this way. My critical account of conceptual writing may be read here and here and here.
See my two most recent poetry books here and here.