Writing prompts can be a great way to get your pen and mind flowing. I always start every writing class (and sometimes my literature classes) with writing exercises. Students are encouraged to spend this time writing freely and without self-editing for anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. I give them a prompt, but if they prefer, they can just free-write or journal. I usually ask for volunteers to share, but I never coerce. Any feedback is positive, because we know these are just rough beginnings. Critique at this stage is not helpful.
This post was actually inspired by doing a writing prompt myself. I have been irregular with my writing for the past few months and really feeling like I need to get back to it. A timed writing exercise is helpful when you are in this state because it’s low-stakes and fairly easy. That’s why it’s great for students. It’s also a tool for transitioning ourselves from the busy-ness of our lives to the focused attention of writing. While diving into a larger project sometimes can feel overwhelming, a low-stakes 5-10 minute exercise can energize us. And the same holds true for myself as does for my students–positive, encouraging attention is what’s in order here, not immediate self-editing or critique. Leave that for a later stage. You may find you want to come back to the writing and add more to it, and going into editor mode can shut this down. Be sure to keep it generative.
One of my favorite types of writing prompts are list-making. I have started almost every semester of writing classes with asking students to create the following lists, which are adapted from Philip Gerard’s book Creative Nonfiction:
- 10 things you remember
- 10 things you know ( can be facts or “truths” learned)
- 5 -10 identities (for example, sister, teacher, waiter, football player)
- 5 people in your life or people you admire or look up to
These are to be done quickly, using just quick phrases. I then ask students to pick one of these and write more about it. Freewrite whatever comes up related to it. Try for a page. We then move on from there to try to incorporate sensory details and narrative structure.
I tell my students to hold onto these initial lists. Whenever you are stuck for something to write about, you can go back to these lists. They are great for generating material, and students have always been able to find *something* to write about.
If you are deep into a project, writing off of random prompts may not be appealing to you. With limited time, we may prefer to spend that time focused on the project. But prompts can help here, too, especially if you’re stuck. There are some great prompts and questions that can help in the revision process – and that will be the topic of my next post! Sometimes, also, if we are feeling uninspired or unmotivated, a little bit of a writing “warm-up,” even if it’s unrelated to our project, can get us going and may even provide some new perspective.
There are a lot of great sites that offer writing prompts. Here are a few.
Life in 10 Minutes has a list of prompts that you are encouraged to use as a 10-minute writing exercise in memoir and creative nonfiction. Look for opportunities to submit your work to them at their website.
Brian Klems gives a lot of creative writing prompts for fiction writers at Writers Digest.
Poets & Writers offers prompts for poetry on Tuesdays, fiction on Wednesdays, and creative nonfiction on Thursdays. You can sign up for an e-newsletter to get these prompts.
Creativewritingprompts.com offers a whole array of different kinds of writing prompts.
Or, use “writing prompts” or “writing exercises” in your search box. If you want to focus on a specific genre, add that too.
Want more? Check out Bonni Goldberg’s book Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.
I would love to see ideas for great writing prompts or resources for them. Please feel free to share in the Comments section.