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'm Val Serdy, and I'm an editor. I love writing, and I love writing about writing.