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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Value of Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are the best tool to use for writing practice and development. Prompts provide you with the means for discipline the help you use your time efficiently. Best of all, writing prompts are the spring board for unforeseen surprises and great new discoveries both personally and professionally.

Writing prompts are prescribed words, phrases, questions, statements, quotes, thoughts, anything that is already prepared that you don’t have to conjure up on the spot, anything that you can use as a starting point for your writing. You may certainly create your own writing prompts, but you should do so in advance so that when you sit down to use one, your mind is blank, empty, open and unsuspecting. The purpose of writing prompts is to warm up your mind and get the writing nurons in your brain snapping with creative energy. When you randomly choose a writing prompt and write to it, you are forcing yourself to stretch and grow in ways you would otherwise never encounter.

I use writing prompts every day before I begin my regular work. I find that by starting my writing sessions with a random prompt, I am more ready to delve into projects currently in progress. The prompts help trigger vocabulary and concepts I often use later in the day. They also wake up my mind, telling it that it is time to write. In this way, the habit of starting my writing day with a prompt is like any other preparatory routine that gets you ready to work.

In addition to being a skill, writing is also a habit and a practice. Anything you do requires practice; you do what you do well because of practice. Even great performers don’t just show up on stage and perform a master piece. No, they practice. They show up for practice time whether they feel like it or not. I guarantee they do mundane and repetitious exercises. Professional ballerinas still stand at the barre and do plies, for example, and professional musicians run scales to warm up their fingers and voices.

We have to treat our writing the same way. Writing prompts are the practice exercises that lead you to great masterpieces.

If you don’t have a particular assignment or project you are working on, you may find yourself at a loss when you sit down to write. Many writers complain that they don’t know what to write. This leads to a lot of wasted time. If you use writing prompts, you will use your time more efficiently because as soon as you sit down, you have an immediate direction to go with your writing time.

One of the biggest rewards of writing prompts is the plethora of secret surprises they have to offer. You may choose a random word that, at first, seems to mean nothing in particular to you. Something as simple as the word “hands”, for example, may lead you to recall thememory of your grandfather who died when you wer a young child. Then, in writing about him, you may uncover a life lesson he demonstrated that, as a young child, you wouldn’t have recognized, but that now, as an adult, is just the “advice” you need to hear at this point in your life. By forcing yourself to grapple with the prompt, move through the “this means nothing to me” stage and on to the free writing that has its own animated agenda, you end up with ideas and insights that literally fall into your lap – often little gems that lead to great stories or articles.

How it Works

  1. Choose a prompt. Prompts are all around you. Just look through any of your books about writing or Google “writing prompts”. Don’t contemplate when you get a prompt and don’t turn your back on one thinking the next one will be “better”. Just take one and force yourself to write on it.
  2. Time yourself and write to a specific prompt. Five minutes is a good amount of time to start with, especially if writing to prompts is new to you. Set a timer and write frantically the whole time. Even if you don’t know what to write and aren’t at all inspired, simply write “I don’t like this prompt….” As you argue your way around the prompt, you will eventually come to something. If not, you will at least be actively practicing writing. Once you are comfortable with five minutes, increase your time to ten. You may go as long as fifteen minutes, but don’t go beyond that or you will loose the power of the prompt. If you are on a roll and really like what you are doing, you can certainly continue. But as a general rule of thumb, never demand yourself to go beyond fifteen minutes. If you can’t get something going after fifteen minutes, then that particular prompt simply isn’t meant to be. That’s OK. Let it go and try again with something new the next day.

Writing prompts are an invaluable tool for all writers no matter how novice or experienced you may be. Writing prompts are the means to practice, develop and grow as a writer. Chances are, you’ll write something really terrible to most of the prompts that you use. But that’s OK. The point of practice isn’t to be great; it’s to become great.

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