By no means a new method of dealing with writer’s block, writing prompts aren’t just some school assignment or an exercise for kids or teens. For writers and authors, they can be a useful tool for both unblocking you and making you a better writer.
But do they work?
The short answer is yes. They might not be the answer to a particularly challenging plot obstacle, but writing prompts can be one of the best ways to tap back into your writing head. Still not convinced? Let’s look at a few of the benefits of writing prompts.
They create rules
For the most part, writing prompts are just simple exercises. Sometimes they’re neat little scenarios that allow you to creatively fill in the gaps, such as “Your character receives a letter. It reads, ‘In two hours, you’re about to die.’ Who is the letter from, and why have they sent it to you?” This style of writing prompt hems you in, so to speak, by creating a set of rules. But you can bend those rules however you like.
Or better yet, you can even create your own writing prompts.
If that’s too much for you, you can head to Twitter, where there are various daily writing prompts—such as #vss365, which features a new word every day. Writers of all stripes then try to create bite-size stories featuring that word.
“Without constraints, art dies” is an old saying. But with writing prompts, we truly see that by creating boundaries, writers and authors find themselves pushing the envelope and seeing how outlandish, how horrifying, and how heartbreaking they can make a seemingly simple word or question. Once the rules are in place, it’s much easier to break them.
When you are working on a big project, sometimes there is nothing more appealing than a quick, no-strings fling with a writing prompt. They not only have the potential to free you from your current writing practice but are aces at helping you get out of any writing ruts you might find yourself in.
“Get outside your comfort zone,” writes A. M. Harte in “Seven Reasons To Use Writing Prompts.” “An unusual prompt can take you down unexplored paths and encourage you to explore new writing styles and genres…and you never know what gem of an idea you could discover.”
For the same reason writing prompts can free us from certain writing conventions or traps we’ve made for ourselves, they can also be an excellent means of escape, whether from our current work in progress or even certain stresses or upsets in our lives.
And better yet, you’re not compelled to write in the same voice, the same style, and under the same constraints as your current rules. Nor are you committing to another large project. You’re just having some fun. Which means that...
They can remind you why you love writing
I’ve heard rumors about people for whom writing books is a glorious process from start to finish. Which is lovely and yay for those people. But not everyone works that way. Writing a book is hard, because not everything is easy or straightforward the whole time. So when you’ve hit a particularly rough patch or you are at the “I hate my book” stage (we’ve all been there), a brief interlude with no expectation, baggage, or rules can be just what you need to remember that you are, in fact, a darn good writer oozing with all the creativity.
They keep you writing
When you’re stuck, sometimes you need to do something else—anything else—just so long as you keep writing. Don’t give yourself the excuse not to write (unless you truly need the break).
You have to write constantly, advises E. J. Lane in “Advantages of Writing Prompts.” “And while any kind of writing is a step in the right direction, focused writing is a better tool to help us improve. While you work on your current manuscript, improving your writing isn’t the foremost focus. It’s good to take small breaks to focus on areas where we may be weak. Prompts are a good way to bring our weaker skills up to snuff.”
They shut up your inner editor
If you have a terrible tendency to self-edit as you work—which can jar you out of your creative writing space—prompts can be a fantastic way of writing your merry way through a piece without having to edit for content, style, grammar, or anything else.
“Writing prompts encourage free writing without self-edits,” writes Stephanie Morrill in “4 Benefits to Writing Prompts.” “Sometimes that inner editor squashes the best ideas, metaphors, plot twists, and creativity. Regular free writing teaches us how to bind the inner editor, if for only a moment, and it permits our imaginations to fly. The resulting creativity is the very thing agents and editors are looking for in fresh manuscripts.”
They remove some of the stress about writing
For me, one of the greatest obstacles to my book and creative writing is…well, me. Even before I sit down to write, my brain is already overthinking and overanalyzing what I want to write, reminding me of other things I could be doing, of better writers, of expectations (usually mine), and that insidious jerk voice that keeps whispering, “None of this is any good.” It’s like being in a stadium full of people, all screaming at you for different reasons. It’s exhausting, and that’s even before I’ve typed a word.
Writing prompts, however, ask nothing of you. They remove the pressure of your own brain. “Here is a word/scenario. Now go.” We don’t have to worry about the plausibility or complexity of the prompt. It is, after all, simply an exercise. And because of this, it allows writers and authors the freedom to write as well or as badly as they like.
After all, no one is going to see it. Unless, of course, you find it turning into a short story or book. And isn’t that the best of all possible outcomes?
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.