Reinvigorate Your Writing with Prompts

I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast on the topic of writing for fun while taking a walk today. The hosts were talking about how sometimes writing can feel like hard work and how maintaining the fun is essential to creativity and sticking with it for the long haul. I totally agree. I asked myself, how do I make writing fun? And my answer was writing prompts.

Writing prompts are an integral component of my writing practice. I use them to start a project, to solve problems, and of course, just for fun. Some people suggest that writers eschew prompts, and just get down to the real writing. Well, to me this is the real writing. Prompts help me focus my mind and, when combined with freewriting, keep it wide open to possibilities. This approach almost always yields the solution to a problem, a new way of looking at things, or new ideas. If you haven’t tried it, I urge you to experiment with one of the ways suggested below.

1. Shake things loose. A fresh topic 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, requiring you to make choices you wouldn’t otherwise make, and thus shape the writing that pours out. If you get stuck, rewrite the prompt over and over until the jam is cleared.

2. Inspiration. You never know what will emerge when you try a different angle. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, recommends writing with a prompt and then using its opposite. For example, start with I remember, and then try I don’t remember. This gets at what she calls the underbelly, dipping into the unconscious. 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 the experience of being in a challenging physical position is good practice for life. It’s true of writing too. Trying out challenging prompts can make your mind more flexible. For example, put your main character in a dire situation and write her out of it. Then write the scene again, withholding any object, person, or experience that helped her out of it. How will she get out of it now?

4. Practice and experiment. You can experiment with different points of view, tense, 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. When I do writing practice, I don’t expect anything amazing to come out. I’m free to write with abandon. There’s a lot of chaff, but rich kernels rise to the surface. Sometimes a whole blog post will come out as the result of a writing prompt.

6. Warm up. Writing prompts can be used as a warm up just as visual artists use sketching. It’s a way to loosen up your mind and let go of preoccupations before you start on your project in earnest. Try picking five words and write for two minutes on each.

7. Think on paper. You can use a prompt to try out different solutions to a problem in writing or life. Sometimes I start with The answer is, just to see what comes out.

8. Regular projects. When I start a new project, I use prompts two ways. For example, first I use: Everything I know about the passive voice. Then I write the opposite. After I have a clear idea of what I want to write and what I need to research, I use writing prompts to break a project down into smaller, more manageable parts.

9. Stamina and mastery. The more you practice, the better you get at writing. Try using the same topic every day for a week. When I do this, I always uncover a deeper understanding of my mind and the topic.

Keep a list of topics that come up in your writing that interest you. You can save them in a separate Word doc, in Evernote, or 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 (e.g., kerfuffle, confluence)
  • No topic (great for getting out complaints)
  • Before I die…
  • Lists (These can be a great source for future topics, e.g., places I’ve lived, best friends I’ve had)
  • Pictures
  • Music

What do you do to keep your writing fun? Have you tried using writing prompts? Do you have favorites? Let us know in the comments below. If you liked this post and want more, be sure to sign up for the Captain’s Blog so you won’t miss any posts.