When I write with my writing partner on Sunday nights, we start with a prompt. Sometimes we have something in mind, and sometimes we pull a word or phrase from a book. Prompts are a great complement to writing practice. Having a writing prompt allows us to enter the writing immediately; we don’t have to think about where to start. We use writing prompts for lots of other purposes. Here are several for you to consider.
(1) Shake things loose. A fresh topic for a writing prompt can help you when you feel stuck. Drop your main character in a location that is completely foreign to her. Write your character’s dying words. Tell the story of an inanimate object. Imagine that you can take only one book with you to Antarctica. These constraints channel your creativity and require that you make choices you wouldn’t otherwise make.
(2) Inspiration. You never know what will emerge when you try a different angle. Natalie Goldberg recommends writing on a prompt and then writing its opposite. For example, start with I remember, and then use I don’t remember. This gets to what she calls the underbelly. Different angles are worth exploring.
(3) Stretch and grow. I had a yoga teacher who encouraged me to do inversions and twists. She said that knowing how to be in a challenging physical position was good practice for life. It’s true of writing too. Trying out challenging prompts can help your mind be flexible and agile.
(4) Practice and experiment. You can experiment with different points of view, different techniques of dialogue, and different genres. What if your literary fiction character suddenly found himself in a murder mystery? How would he be different?
(5) Lower expectations. If you keep low expectations, things that show up will pleasantly surprise you. Sometimes a whole blog post will come out of a writing prompt. You are free to write with abandon and experiment. If I get stuck, I rewrite the prompt over and over until the jam is cleared. Then I keep writing.
(6) Warm up. Writing prompts can be used as a warm up just as visual artists use sketching. Your mind prepares to write and is in that mode.
(7) Think out loud. You can use a prompt to try out different solutions to a problem.
(8) Real projects. When I start a new project, I use prompts two ways. First I write, “Everything I know about xyz.” Then I write the opposite. After I have a clear idea of what I want to write, I use writing prompts to break the project down into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, when I write for my parenting blog, I generally follow a formula and use a separate prompt for each section: (1) what is going on for our children, (2) why is it hard for parents even when we understand that our children’s behavior is an expression of need, and (3) what are tools and strategies to use to support ourselves and our children.
(9) Stamina and mastery. The more you practice, the better you get at writing.
Writing prompts are helpful items to keep in your toolbox. You can keep a list of them on the last page of your notebook. Here are some of my favorites:
I’m looking at/I’m not looking at
I want to write about
What I really mean to say is
A single word (spicy, kerfuffle, confluence)
No topic (great for getting out complaints)
Writership has a collection of writing prompts for fiction, nonfiction, and memoir writing called Pictures & Prompts. We post new ones every weekend. You can find them here. In our year-long program, we’ll deliver daily prompts (and so much more) to keep your writing fingers limber.