Today’s guest post is from Desiree Villena. Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She’s very passionate about independent publishing and hopes to help as many aspiring authors as possible reach their dreams! Today Desiree is here to share some awesome tips about how to make the most of writing prompts.
So, you’re trying to write, but you can’t quite seem to get the words down. Maybe you’re just starting out and don’t know what to do — or maybe you’ve been doing this for awhile and feel embarrassed that you’ve gotten stuck! Maybe you need to clear your mind, maybe you need a warm-up, or maybe you just simply need one good idea.
No matter what your dilemma, I’ve got the solution: writing prompts.
Writing prompts, if you’re unfamiliar, are bite-sized nuggets of inspiration that give writers just one or two ingredients of a story — place, plot, characters, objects, etc. — to work from. A prompt is a particularly open-ended form of writing exercise, challenging you to find ways to rearrange random elements into a cohesive story.
Of course, prompts alone won’t get the job done, but they can be a great way to connect with your inner creative energy. And they’re especially helpful if you can approach them with an open mind and reframe them to serve whatever need(s) you have.
To show you what I mean, here are five enterprising ways to use prompts so they’ll actually be useful to you as a writer!
5 Enterprising Ways to Use Writing Prompts
1. Prompts as a personal trainer
(To remind you that writing isn’t supposed to be easy)
“Writer’s block” is a common label for all kinds of writing troubles, but most often refers to one’s inability to begin. Even if you’ve written tens of thousands of words before, you’ll still run into times when you simply cannot formulate those first few paragraphs.
And that’s fine! More than fine, it’s normal; it’s the writer’s condition. As short story writer and novelist Donald Barthelme once said, a writer is “a person who sits down to work with no idea of what to do.” In other words, writers are professionals at pulling something out of nothing. It’s just really hard sometimes.
The purpose of prompts in this scenario is to show you that there’s no such thing as true writer’s block — only writer’s delay. Prompts force you into action, compelling you the same way a personal trainer would at the gym, to do something even when you don’t feel like it.
To use writing prompts as a trainer, set a timer for fifteen minutes and write whatever you can, as quickly as you can. Fill as much space as possible with your words in relation to the prompt: fragments of scenes, lines of dialogue, flashes of character detail and background, and so on. These “sprints” may be tough on your writer’s perfectionism (and on your writing hand!), but they’ll help you get past whatever blockage was keeping you from productivity.
2. Prompts as a tennis net of sorts
(For when you need structure to help you along)
Robert Frost once famously compared writing free-verse to playing tennis with the net down, saying that he was averse to both — he preferred the grounding nature of rules and structure. And indeed, sometimes self-imposed restrictions are a path to more fulfilling play, and from there to true creative discovery.
A prompt serves as solid ground, allowing you to experiment with different ideas while remaining safely within the confines of a writing exercise. It’s limiting, but it’s also reassuring; the structure provided by a prompt gives you an automatic starting point and suggestions for how to move forward.
Basically, prompts keep you from becoming overwhelmed by the endless possibilities of the blank page. They may not always result in Pultizer-winning stories, but using a prompt is better than trying to find the “perfect” idea in a sea of infinite thoughts.
Also, if you find yourself craving even more structure, why not check out some writing contests? Not only do they provide specific prompts, but they also involve a deadline — and a prize that you can only win if you meet that deadline. For those who haven’t written much of anything since college because they don’t have essays due anymore, contests could be just what you need to get back in the game.
3. Prompts as an imagination generator
(To jump-start your creativity like a car battery)
You might also think of writing prompts as the mental equivalent of jump-starting a car. With each “start,” you’re hoping that the sputtering engine will fire up with a roar, ready to go full speed ahead.
Prompts do this by providing a few details to ignite your imagination. The initial prompt doesn’t have to be lengthy — it just has to hit exactly right, as a jump-start does for a car. This is why it sometimes takes more than one prompt to really inspire your writing, and why you shouldn’t feel discouraged if the prompt doesn’t “catch” right away. In all likelihood, it will take a few tries, but then you’ll be off to the races!
And of course, as with the “sprints” you may have already completed, the writing that springs from this strategy doesn’t necessarily have to be good. So don’t worry about whether a given prompt is the one that gets you on the road to your story or novel. (Have I used enough driving metaphors for you yet?) Every time a fresh prompt actually coerces you to write, you’re getting closer to your biggest writing goal, whatever that may be — because your creativity is sharpening all the time, preparing for its ultimate test.
4. Prompts as resignation
(For when you don’t know how to make something good)
Obviously, it’s one thing to say that writing is as simple as indefinite drafts and repetitive failure, and another thing to actually buckle down and write all those drafts. It can often feel daunting, even hopeless, to produce the bad work that comes before success — which is why you need a plan for when it feels easier to give up than go on.
Rick and Morty writer and creator Dan Harmon embraces this do-or-die approach when he advises that writers “write to prove what a bad writer [they] are.” That is, you shouldn’t just sit there not writing because you’re sure it’ll be bad. You should write, because it might not turn out so bad after all — and even if it does, there’s no story so bad that it can’t be learned from.
This is where prompts come in. With so many available, you can pretty much plug away at them forever, writing terrible story after terrible story… until one day you actually produce something great. All it takes is one story in a million to make a name for yourself, so just remind yourself that the repetitive practice (and numerous mistakes) is more likely to lead to victory than failure.
5. Prompts as writerly meditation
(If you’re not sure where you’re going, and you’re okay with that)
Sometimes, all you can do is forget everything outside what you’re writing at this exact second. Try to think about it this way: there is no writer’s block. There is only the prompt.
A prompt is a prayer for inspiration, but what results from it isn’t always going to make sense. After all, the imagination isn’t a coin-operated machine that will spit out the same thing every time. But that’s the wonder of it — and why the same prompt can give rise to a hundred different stories from as many different minds.
So when all else fails, don’t force yourself to take on a prompt because you think you should write a certain kind of story, or because you’re counting on the prompt to solve your writer’s block. Instead, take a free-floating approach to prompts, in the hopes that it will reveal your unconscious (but perhaps more “real”) concerns and ideas. This also means that long after you’re finished with a particular prompt, you can use your response to it in other work, because it will reflect what you truly care about.
As I hope I’ve impressed on you by now, every writer has a unique relationship to prompts — and indeed, some don’t find them useful at all. But if you’re willing to open your mind to the possibilities of prompts, you might just unlock a whole other dimension of your creativity, and perhaps even a book-worthy idea for your next project.