Prompts, part 2: A different approach

You might want to read Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick? before you wade into today’s post. I’ve been told that part 1 was cranky; part 2 is, well, crankier.


To repeat from last Thursday’s post: A prompt—in the context of writing—is a short sentence or phrase used to help a writer get started when a writer is stuck and can’t write. A prompt supplies an idea to work with, just to grease the brain-wheels so it’s possible to get words onto a blank page or screen. The theory is that once the words start coming, the words will keep coming.

For this trick to work, quantity is necessary: the writer needs choice in order to find a prompt that beckons, resonates, piques the interest. If you have fifty prompts to choose from, chances are that one of them will grab you enough to start you writing something. Hence the popularity of long lists of prompts online and in books.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a student in an English class and the teacher puts only five prompts on the blackboard, it’s very possible that none of them will grab you. Five options aren’t a lot of options. Frustration with writing is sure to follow—exactly what the teacher was probably trying to avoid by offering prompts in the first place.

Now I’m going to come clean: I do not like the idea of anyone supplying prompts for someone else. It’s akin to handing a friend a load of nicely cut firewood when you should have taught your friend how to cut logs since she’s going to have to make more than one fire if she’s going to keep warm in the future.

understand that in an environment in which writing has become so accessible that almost anyone can try to be a writer, there will be writing aids under every rock and all a would-be writer has to do is turn over the right rock to get some help. But I don’t like it.

In fairness, I need to make a distinction between kinds of writers: professional and nonprofessional. Nonprofessional writers may make use of any old thing they like in order to enjoy writing—prompts, software, games, even the appalling National Novel Writing Month (better known, adorably, as NaNoWriMo).

But professional writers had better think twice before engaging in reductive practices.

What exactly is a professional writer? I’m afraid that by current definition payment and publishing are the two main qualifications. My definition, however, is this: a professional writer is someone who takes the work seriously, gives it time and attention, and continues to do these things regardless of payment and publishing.

Back to prompts, so I can tie all this together: Professional writers do of course get stuck and need pushes out of the dead air of doldrums and into the fresh air of invention. But I’d be willing to bet money that there aren’t very many professional writers who use websites or books full of prompts to find that fresh air.

What professional writers do is think. Or dream. Or daydream. Or back off and allow ideas to arrive in their own good time. Or they jot down ideas. Or read books, take walks, ride bikes, play music, or do nothing. They also complain, wail, moan, see therapists, drink, cry, decide to stop writing, decide to become brain surgeons, and drive their friends loony. Some stop writing altogether.

But the ones who begin writing again and who regard writing as an imperative, whether they love or hate it, eventually sit down at the blank page or screen and do some work.

What, after all, is so daunting about a blank page or screen? Why is the blank page or screen so panic-inducing?

A blank screen or page does not represent emptiness; it represents potential. View it as a calm, quiet field in which to let your fantasies meander. Constant stimulation is not necessarily productive; being empty and even bored is not necessarily unproductive. In fact, research shows that boredom contributes to creativity; see “Bored at Work? That’s Not a Bad Thing” in Slate via Inc.

Instead of following the herd to the long lists of prompts that other people have invented for you, consider making your own extremely personal list of prompts. And let us stop calling them prompts, a term that carries the unpleasant aura both of nudging and being on time.

Let us call them ideas, because that is what they are: ideas you are perfectly capable of finding for yourself and turning into writing.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

M.Judson Books, Greenville, SC

Books on the Common, Ridgefield, CT

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA

Read 4 comments

  1. Love this, Lorrie. And I don’t think it’s cranky at all. It’s true. As an occasional writing teacher I grew very tired of hearing that “I’d write a novel too, if only I had the time.” (And maybe the right prompt.) As if that was all it would take. Maybe I’m cranky too, but you’re entirely correct in reminding us that writing takes time and thought. And sometimes doing nothing at all for a while, which can be kind of scary. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Spot on, Lorrie. I’ve never used prompts, they remind me of elementary school and kill any impetus I have to write. Incidentally, “life” ought to provide the “prompts.” If in your daily living nothing stimulates you enough for you to say, yeah, there’s my poem / story / novel, you may need to rethink whether you actually want to write in the first place. For a writer, anything can ignite the imagination and bring about a flow of words, even something as mundane as the way light enters an empty cup on a cluttered kitchen table. I think the prompt has arisen because “being a writer” has become academic and so an academic approach is used to train people how to write well. I agree with your other points as well. Thanks for taking up this topic.

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