A three-word writing prompt is… just that. Three words chosen at semi-random. You write whatever those three words bring to mind. If possible, try to include those three words in the writing, but this isn’t required. Think of it as free association.
The three-word writing prompt is my personal favorite. I always come up with new story or character ideas when I use it. Sometimes the ideas don’t pan out, but I always feel creative and “like a writer” when I have to force myself to stop when the timer goes off.
But, to use a three-word writing prompt, you have to have a set of words to pull from. Or a helpful writing website to provide words for you. Each month, I’ll do just that. If you find you enjoy the three-word writing prompt, you can hop on to your favorite search engine and look up other “three word writing prompt” websites.
Or… you can create your own. You need a list of words, slips of paper, and a container. The paper and container are the easy part. You can print your words onto fancy cardstock, cut the words out, fold them in half, and drop the paper slips into a mason jar. I just did that for a girlfriend’s birthday present. You can write words on strips of paper and toss them into a bowl. How crafty are you?
No, the hard part is coming up with the list of words. When I created my friend’s present, I started my list by writing down some of my favorite words: pellucid, chiaroscuro, juxtaposition. Then, I added concrete nouns: dog, chair, tree, car. People (nurse), places (park), things (toy), times of day (noon). Next, adjectives. I went a little overboard here, my first list out, including all the color and size words I could think of. Go ahead and go a little crazy at first. It’s easier to cut than to add more later (this is true with revising also).
Then, I wanted words that could do double-duty. Words that have more than one meaning, or that could be both a noun or a verb. Words like bell (belling the cat, sleigh bell, church bell, doorbell), ring (jewelry, fairy ring, ring a bell), flute (the fluting on a pie, the musical instrument).
Next, I thought about words that had “freight.” Words with a LOT of connotation behind them, or a deep history. Words like: blood, lightning, betrayal.
Next, I thought about and then rejected, because this was for a gift, words that may be specific to a particular genre. If I knew my friend was going to write only space operas, I might include words like planet, stars, FTL, tachyons. If she wanted to write only medieval fantasy, I might include words like wench, chamber pot, knight, trews. Mystery writer? Words like blood, clue, detective, pistol.
This left me with a VERY long list. Too long for me to cut out all those squares, even with a fancy paper cutter. So, I started cutting (words from my list; not paper squares!). First went synonyms. Then, sadly, most of my favorite words. They were either too specific (pellucid) or too hard to spell (chiaroscuro), which would have me stumbling during my writing. Then, any words that didn’t give me ideas just by looking at them.
Finally I was left with a list of some 40 words. That seemed plenty.
Now, you try it.
So, if you want to create your own, personalized word list, I recommend you follow a similar process. Start a list by using:
Your favorite words
Words specific to the genre you write
Concrete nouns, such as:
Or, use mine!
Then, cut back until you have a manageable list.
Adjectives (describing words): colors, sizes, textures
Verbs (action words)
Double-duty words: words that can be both nouns and verbs; words that have multiple, disparate meanings
Words that carry freight with you
If you’ve never used writing prompts before, it can be a little … weird… figuring out how to use them. It seems like it should be simple: choose a prompt and start writing. But there are some places where a writer can stumble, like putting too much emphasis on perfection or spending too much time on the prompt and not enough on the WIP, so some guidelines may be appreciated.
To wit: how to use a writing prompt.
Get your WIP ready.
Place your WIP near you (or open it in a new window and put it in the background). Gather anything else you will need to work on your WIP near you (Drink? Freshly sharpened pencil? Floor plan for the castle?) and then ignore it. Cover it with something if necessary. You want NO excuses to do anything BUT work on your WIP after the writing prompt.
Choose a prompt.
Stop writing when the timer goes off.
7 minutes works well for me. If you are even more impatient than I am (which, honestly, seems REALLY unlikely), try 5 minutes. If you are a slow writer or typer, try setting a timer for 15 minutes. You need to choose a time that is short enough that it doesn’t eat into your primary writing time, but long enough for you to get warmed up.
Any prompt will do. You can also choose to “free write.” Write whatever comes to mind, stream-of-consciousness fashion. A prompt helps give your thoughts focus, which can be helpful if the blank page stresses you out.
At all. Don’t think about the right word, don’t go back and fix spelling, don’t reread, just write. Don’t stop moving your hand/fingers. Even if you have no idea what to write, just keep writing. Anything.
If you feel yourself getting “stuck” or pausing, try one of these tricks:
Start describing, using all your senses, what is around you. For instance, I am typing this on my deck. Two birds are whistling back and forth to each other, one on my right and one a few houses down on my left. I can just hear car traffic from the lake-road at the bottom of the hill. The awning is down, blocking my view of the sky but I can see the cedar trees and maple trees in front of me, in all their shades of green. My feet are planted on the solid surface of the deck, just a little pebbly, and my bum is slanting forward on the rocking chair, curving my back a LOT and just starting to cause a pinch of pain. I really should sit up straight and maybe start those core exercises I keep thinking about. Just keep writing.
Start over, right where you are. Rewrite/retype the prompt and see where this new start takes you. Rewrite the prompt several times if you must.
Write “I remember I remember I remember” over and over again until you remember something and then start writing that.
Write “I hate this stupid exercise” and why you hate it.
Set a timer for a reasonably short amount of time.
Begin writing and do not stop.
Begin working on your WIP as soon after your exercise as possible.
Save your work, or don’t. (When I start writing about people, possible characters, I save my work. If all I’ve done is whine, I don’t.) Do NOT edit. Don’t even reread. Now is not the time to turn on your editing mind. Now is the time to stay in your creative, writing mind.
You want to start working on your WIP while your creative muscles/energy are high and your critiquing energy is low.
Now, get writing.
Why you should be using writing prompts
Just about every website about writing offers writing prompts, including this one (yay!). So, what’s a writing prompt? And why does every writing website offer some?
A writing prompt is a jumping off point: a series of words, an incomplete sentence, a memory jogger, a picture. A prompt is meant to be provocative. (If a prompt doesn’t spark a thought in your murky brain, it may not the right prompt for you.) It’s meant to give you something that you can write about.
So, a writing prompt is a pretty simple thing. But given its simplicity, why all the attention on writing prompts?
They are powerful. Writing prompts can help you get unstuck, provide story ideas, improve your writing, and more
Create a practice.
If you are just getting started writing, coming up with the perfect story idea can be a big, scary, stressful chore. Committing to writing something every day on your new story idea can leave you feeling overwhelmed and convinced you don’t have enough creativity to keep the story going. Staring at a blank screen is enough to get anyone committed.
But, COMMITTING (see what I did there?) to writing to a prompt every day, however, is so much more attainable. It gives you a baby step to the bigger goal you want to achieve, a little practice at writing, a little practice at VALUING your writing enough to schedule time for it, a jog to your brain that this practice is important to you so quit nagging about all those chores that aren’t getting done RIGHT THIS INSTANT.
Ease blank page anxiety.
If the thought of filling a blank page with your very own words is enough to make you want to run away from your screen screaming, a writing prompt can help. Simply type the prompt at the top of the page and BAM. No more blank screen. The prompt gives your brain something to focus on. Something other than fear: fear of mistakes, fear of lacking ideas, fear of not being good enough.
Just take a deep breath and focus on the words in the prompt.
Improve your (perception of your) creativity.
I always start a project convinced I will suddenly run out of all ideas. It’s the same feeling I have on Friday night at 5 pm and the family is STARVING and alls I have in the kitchen is some ground beef, a can of tomatoes, and an onion. Ain’t no way a tasty dinner is coming out of that kitchen. And, ain’t no way, I always think, a good story idea is coming out of the air.
But I’ve been cooking since I was 12 years old. I have confidence in my abilities, and so, once I silence the starving horde, I eventually realize I can make sloppy joes, or tacos, or baked ziti.
I have that same confidence in my creativity when I’ve written to a few prompts. I always, ALWAYS, am able to write SOMETHING, even if I spend the first seven minutes whining about how I hate this prompt. And coming up with SOMETHING, even if I won’t use it in a story later, always makes me feel more creative, which makes me feel more confident, and, confidence is everything.
Create an idea repository.
Every time you write something you find yourself enjoying, every time you have to force yourself to stop writing when the timer goes off, well, those are the times you’ve come up with an idea worth pursuing. Save it. Wherever you store your ideas, store these short snippets of writing. Come back to it when you’re looking for a new project.
If you write to a prompt five days a week, chances are good you’ll get one good idea. If you write five days a week for a month, you’ll have at least four new ideas to pursue when the time comes.
Outrace your inner critic.
Many of us have an inner critic, perched somewhere over our shoulders, reading everything we write and judging it. That’s not good enough. No one will like your writing. That’s dumb! Who says that anyway?
We have an obvious attachment to our WIPs, or else why would we be working on them? And that attachment gives our critic all the ammunition it needs to cow us into not writing. If you can begin your writing session by writing to a prompt, however, you give your creative mind time to wake up before your critical mind can squash it. You aren’t attached to this random piece of writing, you’re just writing. Start writing and intentionally ignore (or even actively shush) your critic, and your creative mind has a chance to take over. Even when you’ve finished writing to the prompt, your creative mind has a good chance of staying in control because you’ve paid attention to it, giving it more importance than your critical mind.
If you’ve been writing for a long time in a particular genre, or with a particular style, it can be pretty scary to break out of that rut. Writing first person POV when you’ve only ever done third may well feel impossible. You can’t take that risk on your WIP!
But, you CAN take that risk in a writing prompt. You have no attachment to the outcome of the prompt. You’re going to throw it away most likely so it doesn’t matter if it sucks so badly it must be deleted off your hard drive immediately to ensure that, to paraphrase Annie Lamott, your entire, awful, untalented self is not exposed to the world if you get hit by a bus and people search your writing for something to use in your eulogy.
So, go ahead. Take a risk. Write SciFi. Write in verse. Write from the POV of a brilliant six-year-old child. The worst that happens is you’ve learned, in only 15 minutes, that you HATE writing SciFi because of the stupid FTL problem.
Learn more about yourself and your writing.
If you can write every day for a few minutes by using a prompt, you’ll end up with a lot of time and attention paid to your words and to you, the person writing the words. You’ll start to notice you write better in the morning instead of the evening. Or that you like the ritual of lighting a candle and taking three deep breaths before beginning. You may notice can write easily in the red chair but you struggle when you sit at the kitchen table. You may notice you tend to overuse a phrase or that all of your characters have the same tics.
Use these nuggets of wisdom. Modify your writing practice based on what you’ve learned. For writing idiosyncrasies, just note them and save them for a later time, during revision, when you want your critiquing mind around.
Become part of a writing community.
Just about every writing website offers writing prompts. And most of those websites also offer a way to share what you’ve created based on that prompt. If writing is a lonely experience for you, sharing what you’ve written and commenting on what others have written (which is likely to be WILDLY different), and accepting the comments they give you, is one way to join a community of other writers, all working together to reach the same goal: writing something they are proud of sharing with others.
So… when will you start writing?
How to use writing prompts
I read, and then I tell you about what I've read. Whether you want to hear about it or not...