How to Use Writing Prompts to Become a Better Writer

by | Jul 16, 2015 | Craft | 13 comments

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.

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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.