How to Use Writing Prompts to Become a Better Writer

How to Use Writing Prompts to Become a Better Writer

Writing prompts are everywhere, from published collections to free online tools. But when you use them, are you getting all the potential benefits?

Even among writers who take their writing seriously both artistically and professionally, this question isn’t often asked. After all, prompts are pretty straightforward, right? Find one, brainstorm, write.

If I’m being totally honest, when I first started writing fiction, I didn’t get all the hype around prompts. What was I supposed to be doing with all these random collections of ideas? Should I get a book of prompts and try one every day? Should I subscribe to a blog and try every prompt that hit my inbox? Should I join an online writing community?

I couldn’t understand what made one prompt better than any other, and I got overwhelmed. It was enough to turn me off prompts altogether for several years.

But this spring, I committed to writing a new story every week. It didn’t take long for me to start seeking ways to keep my concepts fresh … and so I decided it was time to give prompts a second chance.

And that’s when something finally clicked for me. It turns out, the prompt itself doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do with it.

Want to make sure you gain all you can when you use writing prompts? Follow these tips.

Fully explore the prompt

It’s easy to feel like you’re under a ticking clock when reacting to a prompt (sometimes, you literally are). But don’t just roll with the first idea that comes to you. When it comes to creativity, quantity breeds quality.

The first ideas we get tend to be the most obvious, or the most familiar. But one of the benefits of prompts is that they stretch our creative capacity. So flex that imagination and take the time to come up with many different story premises before committing to one.

I recommend focusing on possible story directions for at least 10-15 minutes before you do anything else to get past the easy ones and start coming up with more intriguing, exciting angles.

Draft ’til you’re done

Let’s be real: That creative high you get from prompts is only going to take you about 15 minutes into drafting. But don’t stop writing! Finish that sucker.

It can feel like the ideas (or even just the burst of creativity) are the whole point of using a prompt, but there’s so much more to it than that. Prompts also give you the opportunity to practice those oh-so-critical elements of the storytelling craft, such as plotting, characterization, worldbuilding and even editing. Don’t shrug off an opportunity to hone your skills.

Get feedback

This is another critical aspect to using prompts to hone your skills. No writer is able to judge his or her own work objectively. So once you’ve done as much as you can on your own, get outside input.

If you have a critique partner or writing group, that’s perfect. If you don’t, there are plenty of ways to join one, or just ask a friend to give it a read. A person doesn’t have to be a writer to tell if something reads well — they just to be thoughtful and willing to share an honest opinion.

Submit it

By now you’ve got a fantastic story on your hands. Don’t let it just sit in a folder in your laptop. Find a literary magazine that’s a good match and submit it!

Some prompts even offer their own opportunities to be published. For example, DIYMFA’s Writer Igniter is seeking submissions for an anthology to be released this fall, but you’re only eligible if you use the Igniter to create your story.

Go back to square one

Congratulations, you just prompted your way to an awesome story, snagged a byline and sharpened up your writing skills along the way.

Why not do it again? The more you practice, the better you’ll get, and the more bylines you’ll win. And since you took the time to brainstorm lots of ideas at the beginning of your last prompt, you’ve got a slew of ideas already, waiting to turn into stories.

Do you use writing prompts to help you develop stories or practice your skills? Share your strategies — and your favorite sources of prompts! — in the comments.

Filed Under: Craft
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15 comments

  • How true it is that prompts, like any tools, must be used carefully to do their intended job!

    I began making and using them before they were “in,” when I was doing more writing than editing. The method that worked for me was what I call the “writer’s sketch,” a very brief timed session with no preparation or outlining in advance and no editing or revision afterwards (unless, of course, it became the basis for a broader project). I found that the “ticking clock” forced me to write without censoring my ideas, and put me in touch depths I didn’t know I had. The sheer quantity of daily sketches also honed my mechanical skills in a way that fit into even the busiest schedule.

    I found that for me, longer sessions with prompts did not really pay off. I was better off reserving those for my own unprompted projects. However, each writer is different. I always urge writers to try any given method of daily writing for at least a week before deciding it “doesn’t work for me.”

    May I humbly offer my own little collections of prompts? Rather than put a shopping cart on my regular site, I set up a little Etsy shop not long ago for items that are more “products” than “services”:

    https://www.etsy.com/shop/EpiclesisConsulting

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • Thanks for sharing Trish, that is an interesting and valuable alternate approach to prompts.

      It reminds me of the experiment where one group of potters were asked to make a perfect pot, and another group was asked to make as many pots as possible–when pots from both groups were put before expert judges, pots from the “as many as you can” group were consistently better. Quantity trumps quality!

      Just remember that it’s important that you get that repetitive practice on the aspects you’re weakest at — for some, that may be the brainstorming. For others (like me) who are strong at ideas but need work at editing, seeing the full process through may be more important.

      • Absolutely! Every writer is different, and more than that, each of us is different at different times.

        May we all make the most of our tools!

        Trish O’Connor
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        “Enhancing Spiritual Communication”
        epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Denise Covey says:

    Hi Emily!
    This is exactly what I posted about recently. I run an online flash fiction community, writing to carefully-considered prompts. I’ve closed it down twice due to the work involved in hosting it, but due to pleas from contributors, I’m about to start again with a new co-host. I’ve used my responses to prompts to write short stories and incorporated excerpts into a novel. Yep. I’m a believer!

    Denise 🙂

  • Tamara says:

    I take a two-sentence approach to prompts. I usually rewrite the prompt to start with, because most of them need it. Then I add a second sentence, then hone both sentences until I feel I’ve written something decent. A tiny beginning to a story — or an expanded prompt. The value for me is in creating good sentences on topics I would have otherwise never considered.

  • K says:

    It may be just me, but I’m still not clear what a prompt is after reading this and going to the online tools link. Is it a random topic to make you think?

    • Hi, K!

      A “prompt” is something, as you say, to get you to think. Different prompts may take different form. For example, on Etsy I sell several different sets, each with 30 prompts so you could use one a day for a month. One set provides a different title for each session. One provides an opening sentence. One provides a first word and last word. One provides three terms that must be used somewhere in the passage. One provides three words, with one to be the first, one to be the last, and one to be somewhere in the middle. A sixth set is a variety sampler with all five types. (It is also possible to buy all six sets as a discounted package.) I also offer a set of journal prompts that gives the first half of the opening sentence for a journal entry, such as “I feel like a writer when …”

      I’m sure there are lots of other types of writing prompts, too.

      I hope that helps!

    • K — Looks like Trish covered it, but a prompt is anything that is used to jumpstart the brainstorming process for creative writing. They come in a lot of different forms, such as a first sentence, or an image, or a mashup of a few things to include in the story.

      Or, in short, yes, you’re right–it’s a random topic or concept presented to writers to trigger new ideas you wouldn’t come up with alone.

  • Ann-Marie du Plessis says:

    When I joined a writing group I first heard about prompts. It was a real kick to my writing. Today, I continue via the website of Anna Hellqvist’s (Swedish) 100 challenges (=prompts). I set the clock, look at the prompt of the week, and after 15 minutes my brain has given birth to a story I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.
    Prompts are like a vitamin bottle to people like me.

    • Vitamin P!

      It sounds as if you use prompts much the way I do, and get much the same benefit. I have been amazed at some of the writing I have produced when doing my timed “sketches.” I think it’s great that your writer’s group supported you in this discipline.

      For people who don’t yet have a writer’s group doing that, there are new groups starting the first of every month over at LearningBinge.com. Go to the course catalog and look for the “Daily Writing Accountability Group” for the month you want to start. (You have to take the introductory course on writers sketches before you can join the accountability group, so it’s good to plan ahead.) Everyone in the group writes on the same prompt, a new one every day, and has access to a private forum to discuss their sketches and other thoughts .about the writing life. The introduction is free, and the accountability group is about the price of a latte every month. The real “cost” is in making sure to set aside a few minutes every day on a consistent basis.

      Well worth it!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      epiclesisconsulting.com

      • Ann-Marie du Plessis says:

        Thank you for your suggestion to join the “Daily Writing Accountability Group”. Unfortunately, I write in Swedish, my mother tongue. I wish my country could offer something similar. Online Courses simply cost too much here, even to join a Writing Group online.
        However, I am happy to be inspired by this web site The Write Life.
        I will anyway look into the catalogue
        Kind regards,
        Ann-Marie

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