How to make writing prompts work for you
Writers either love or loathe prompts; there seems to be no in-between.
Those of us who love them use them to focus, or to explore, or just to write when we are stuck on another project or feel uninspired.
Those of us who loathe them feel constrained by their specificity, or think there are no original prompts out there, or just don’t want to be “told” what to write about.
At the Center, we embrace prompts. We offer 52 of them as a free download when you join our email list community, and we wrote every single one of them in-house. Within that email list community, we do a monthly photo prompt contest. If you’re seeking writing prompts, or if you’re skeptical of them, we hope you’ll check ours out.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, here are some tips for getting the most out of writing prompts:
Know why you’re using a prompt.
Check in with your writer self. Are you completely blocked? The right prompt could get you writing again, especially if you commit to a free write and don’t think too hard about what you’re putting down. The best way to un-block is to go with the proverbial flow, and prompts can be a great for that.
Trying to take a break from a work-in-progress? The right prompt could be a nice distraction or could even inspire the current project.
Need to revise a problematic piece? Using a prompt as a template might help you trim and re-shape an existing piece in interesting ways.
Feeling playful? The right prompt could make for a fun writing session where you generate a piece of writing unlike anything you’ve ever done before.
So what’s “the right prompt”?
Look for quality prompts.
It’s easy to say, “Write about a meaningful day” or “Write a letter to a deceased loved one.” They aren’t specific enough. They don’t inspire. They don’t show us anything that we can use as a jumping-off point. They don’t ground us in any concrete imagery, like the writing we hope to produce with them should. Look for original prompts that are well-written themselves, that engage your senses and stimulate your imagination. Or write your own prompts! Use favorite books and stories to start a list of plot lines and character traits to emulate, or situations/scenes you can alter. Keep your original list of prompts handy for when you hit a writing slump.
Make the prompt your own.
If you choose someone else’s prompt and are feeling limited, revise it! Don’t think you have to strictly adhere to the prompt as it is written. Change specifics before you start writing; or, if you get on a roll and don’t seem to be writing in response to the prompt anymore, just go with it. The purpose of a prompt is just to get you writing. If you’re writing, the prompt has worked for you.
But maybe you need some limitations. Maybe you are challenged by strict parameters, and writing within them has helped you produce pieces that make you proud. Those of us who thrive under pressure, generate their best work on deadline, and think busy days are good days might really enjoy and benefit from sticking to prompts as they are written.
Whether you change the prompt or not, you have an opportunity to write something you might not otherwise have written. Stay open to receiving the inspiration prompts can provide.
Writing prompts—do you love them or loathe them? Have you or will you try any of ours, and if so, which one(s)? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: 7 writing tips for moving from rut to routine
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