Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick?

Two linked issues in this and the next post: First, do writers actually need prompts or are prompts just another cute trick for lazy wannabes? And second, if a writer does need a prompt, where should it come from and how is it found?

PART 1 today; PART 2 on Monday.



As far as I can figure out, “prompt” is a fairly new word in writing terms. It refers to short sentences or phrases that are used to prod writers into writing. Like these:

  • Write about your first day of school. 
  • Who do you like better—your mother or your father? 
  • What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  • Write about an accident you saw or had.

The notion is that you sit down with one of these prompts, of which there are thousands and thousands already floating around online and in books, and you “get your creative juices flowing” by using the prompt as a starting point. That way you don’t actually have to face a blank page or screen, heaven forbid, and you don’t have to think too hard about what you should write because the prompt gives you a topic.

Professional writers write because they have something they need or want to write about; historically the reason for writing is having something to say. It is not the reverse: that is, wanting to be a Writer and therefore looking for the ignition that will lift you off the launch pad.

To put it slightly differently, somewhere along the way the order of importance got reversed for a lot of people: first they decided to be Writers, and then they wondered what they should write about.

When no subject matter presents itself quickly or easily, some would-be writers imitate the writers they admire. Some latch onto the familiar—family recipes, World War II, illness, divorce—regardless of whether they have anything interesting to say. Some try classes in journaling, short stories, novels.

The popularity of the idea of being a writer plus the extreme change in writing technology (the ease of writing on a computer; the proliferation of writing software) plus the availability of writing classes and writing workshops plus the accessibility of self-publishing has turned what once was a rigorous life-choice into something anyone can do. Or try to do.

All of this may have contributed to the birth of the prompt. The connection is clear, isn’t it? If you’re dabbling in writing, by definition you don’t have a piece of work you feel compelled to pursue. So you may need a jump-start: a list of prompts that someone else came up with.

And that’s why I ask the question: Do writers actually need prompts?

Last November I gave a talk at the New York Society Library, about being stuck or having “writer’s block.” It was based in part on a TBUHB post called “Letter to Girl Group: coming unglued and getting unstuck.”  In that talk I succumbed to the temptation to offer stuck writers a list of possible writing topics. Prompts, in effect. I called them “jolts,” since the goal was to shake up a stuck writer and jolt her into writing again—the way a wallop of electricity can jolt a stopped heart into action. Here are a few of them:

  • Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  • Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  • Write a biting political satire.
  • Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.

In retrospect I’m sorry about this. Instead of giving a list of jolts, what I should have done was ask the members of the audience to look inward and come up with three or four very personal prompts. That leads us to Part 2, on Monday.


SIDEBAR: True writer’s block, which is rare, cannot be cured with prompts; it’s a different, deeper, more intractable problem than the much more common predicament of being stuck. But any writer who’s not blocked but is stuck might have a chance to get going again with prompts; it’s worth a try. Please read Part 2 for a new and different approach to finding the right prompt.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Barner Books, New Paltz, NY

Village House of Books, Los Gatos, CA

Letters Bookshop, Durham, NC

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