Thursday, January 05, 2012

To Prompt or Not to Prompt

Jeff Goins, one of my favorite bloggers on writing, posted on his blog about his distaste for writing prompts.

AMEN, I shouted. I HATE WRITING PROMPTS. I posted the comment on Facebook and Twitter. Amazingly, a bunch of other writers felt the same way. Prompts are an age-old writing suggestion, suggested by the respected likes of Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way. I almost put journaling in the same light - practice writing. But then I always close the journal, ruing the time I could have spent on the novel, regretting that I expended energy writing well for nobody to see.

Search for writing prompts and you'll find all you need, to include morning emails to get you started and random ideas you can click on to help your brain find a clue. Sites such as:

Creative Writing Prompts
Writer's Digest Prompts
Prompt Generator
Writing Fix
Story Starters (for kids)

As you would imagine, prompts are used to teach children how to write stories. Children, while imaginative, have to first learn that a story has a theme, a beginning, middle and end. Prompts help them define those terms and create a story that's molded properly.

Adults, however, should be past that. I can understand taking classes and attending college to hone writing, but as a freelancer, uninhibited by the walls of academia, you should be able to write . . . on your own. If you cannot come up with ideas, you are still in the learning phase of writing, teaching your thinking muscles to function properly.

As a freelancer, you are trying to earn a living. Ideas should be your meat and potatoes. You should be able to sit in your chair and not get up without an idea. In other words, you should be able to generate your own prompt, only you will use it to get somewhere, not just practice.

Maybe I'm being harsh, but if you are in the business, you write to publish. If you are still finding your way, you have the luxury of writing to prompts. If you need a prompt, you need another profession until you realize that a professional writer doesn't just write well . . . he writes well about great ideas.

The only writing prompt book I've read that I thoroughly enjoyed was Joe Bunting's 14 Prompts. No, he doesn't know I'm writing this, and it's not an affiliate relationship. I just liked the easy way Joe writes and the practicality of his use of writing prompts. These you can use in the work, not just to expend ink.

To earn a living as a writer, write for purpose . . . not for practice.


Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...

Hi, Hope,

I can see your point. If a writer is always out of ideas or plagued by writer's block, then prompts are a crutch.

I love them as a teaching tool (middle and high school writers) and I love them as both spiritual coaches and reflective exercises. Cameron's prompts helped me find my writing direction back in 2007 when the day job was paramount and I had to give myself regular and daily permission to write. The prompts at my blog are more like meditations, writing exercises for revision, and metacognitive coaches, too. I think a good prompt can sometimes help a professional writer suddenly see the forest for the trees, get a protagonist to step up and take action, or add a heart-clutching moment to the plot.

So, prompts have their place in my writing life, but it's rare in a writing workshop that they've ever kicked off a new piece.

Thanks for raising the issue.

Gdub said...

Wow, great! I've always thought what's the deal with prompts everywhere--I really dislike those things. If you need a "prompt" you're just not into it. That's like an artist wandering around asking what should I draw? What should I paint? Whining, I should say.

And asking writers what they do to dispel "writer's block" is another peeve of mine. Jeezo capeezo. Why not talk about the positive aspects instead of dwelling on this stuff? Everyone gets stuck--just work through it, write poorly, get to the other side. Then refine what you've written.

Thank you.

Angela Foster said...

I have always hated writing prompts, too. Especially in a classroom situation as it makes me feel too much pressure to produce. But I have to admit that some of my best writing has been produced in classes or on my own using writing prompts. I have a love-hate relationship with prompts -- hate the idea of them, but love the results. I think they are especially useful for writing memoir, often brining memories to mind that had long been forgotten.

April Byrd said...

That's cool too. I feel what you're saying, but everything has it's place there's no reason to hate anything. Thanks for the site links by the way!:)

Cat York said...

I tried to do writing prompts a few times and my exact thoughts were "This is like what my daughters do at school. I feel like a 3rd grader." LOL! Per your posts regarding starting up by writing local, I've conducted two local interviews with unique business owners and targeted the proper magazines and publications for them in town. It felt authentic to write non-fiction and quote sources and get involved in my community. Thanks so much Hope.

Unknown said...

I hear you. I see so many writers in the blogsphere being pulled in to writing only what they're prompted to write. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success to me. If you want to write, by all means write; quit making your writing dependent on somebody else.

Deena Anreise said...

Although I know what your saying, I've found that I benefit from prompts simply because I view them as conversations meant to show me what else I can do, not deficits of my writing muscle or wastes of time that could've been spent earning money. Writing anything is always a thrill, and I consider prompts similar to character sketches that never get used in the novel, back stories that never make it to the audience except through inference, or the first buds of a greater idea. I am never ever short of ideas, which is why I love prompts. They give me more when I thought I was full. Some samples of my recent prompts below (that blew my mind). Cheers! And thanks for all your posts. Love your angle.

Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...


You said it better with your example--and it's what I was trying to get at in my post about "writing exercises for revision"--how a prompt can sometimes provide that much-needed nudge to a story in progress. For example, my writers' group had a workshop one time where a "names" prompt led to a new idea for my short story character, and so I changed the name and got the back story on why the name was what it was, all from that prompt exercise.

I go into all the reasons our minds, hearts, and souls need prompts in a post on my blog, The Why and How of Writing Prompts:

So I view them not as musts but as tune-ups, mirrors, and coaches. In this solitary writing life, I feel we all need a prompt from time to time.


Kelly Robinson said...

Amen! I'm never stuck for ideas, and I've never understood the need to have someone else feed me any. Now if someone has some spare time or motivation to pass on, I'll jump right on it!

D.G. Hudson said...

I find my writing prompts in everyday life. It takes awareness and the ability to recognize an idea.

I don't like writing prompts either, but I think they serve a purpose for some. No reason to look at it as a crutch, it's a tool for learning. Golf, tennis, etc. - they all take practice for most of us to become adept at it.

Hope Clark said...

Knew I'd strike a chord. Glad to see the varied responses. To each his own, and as I recently told a reader who did not like my post of a particular market, "live and let live."

Nate said...

I'm going to join in on the pro-prompt side of things.

I completely agree that they are a distraction. Which is exactly why I think they have a place.

Always writing to support yourself sounds like a recipe for burn-out. I'm all about balance and letting yourself "veg-out" by having a little fun with a prompt could be an invigorating spark. You can't be all business all the time, that's no fun.

Jeff Goins said...

Thanks, Hope, for your kind words and recommendation of Joe's book (I agree with you).

I also have a great deal of respect for Ms. Cameron and love the Artist's Way.

In my view, prompts are valuable so long as they're a means to an end.

I know far too many writers who have been working on their book proposal or morning pages or even their business plan... for YEARS.

This is criminal. It's time to stop practicing and just start.

I became a much better not by signing up for classes and prompts but by forcing myself to do the work of writing for an audience.

I like the analogy you drew about growing up. Very apt.

Thanks for starting this conversation on your blog; I hope it helps many writers start.

Hope Clark said...


I wholeheartedly agree. A means to an end . . . I like that. Writing to prompts for the sake of working prompts just feels wasted to me - but that's me.

In Which We Start Anew said...

I like prompts sometimes. Maybe I'm in a different place as I have no intention of writing "for an audience" and don't care if I ever turn my writing into something that's monetarily lucrative. I write for me, and if someone else gets something out of it, great. But, if not, I'm still happy.

Do I "need" a prompt to find something to write about? Not really. But sometimes what I WANT to write about still needs some time to percolate before it's ready for composition, yet I still want to go through the exercise of writing daily. Prompts can help me get my mind off of what's on my mind long enough to see it from a new angle.