The Power of a Writing Prompt

by Mark Levy

If you’ve done any freewriting before, you may have heard the term “prompt.” A prompt is a common freewriting exercise. Instead of beginning a session with whatever appears in your mind, you begin with a predetermined phrase (called a prompt) that guides the direction of your writing.

How would using a prompt work?

If you were about to loosen up with a ten-minute freewrite and wanted a prompt, I might say, “Complete the following sentence: ‘The best part of my workday is . . . ’

You’d answer that question, at least initially. You could stay on it for the entire ten minutes, or you move to another subject minutes or even seconds after beginning. Your choice.

The number of prompts you could use are endless. You can come up with them on your own. A few more examples:

“Yesterday I saw a curious thing . . . “

“If I didn’t have to work I’d . . . “

“I threw a stone and it landed . . . “

Now, I’ve used prompts many times, but have never considered them part of my regular repertoire. After speaking with Robyn Steely, though, I have a new admiration for the technique.

Steely is the executive director of a non-profit organization, “Write Around Portland,” which works with social service agencies to build community. According to its website, the organization runs no-cost writing workshops for “people living with HIV/AIDS, veterans, survivors of domestic violence, adults and youth in addiction recovery, low income seniors, people in prison, homeless youth and others who may not have access to writing in community because of income, isolation or other barriers.”

The central principle driving Write Around Portland’s workshops is freewriting.

Participants sit in a circle with pad and pen, and a facilitator begins the session by offering up two prompts, such as “The thing about you and me . . . “ and “The night smelled like . . . .”

Each participant chooses one prompt to kindle their writing. Later, they share what they’ve produced and offer feedback to other writers. In giving feedback, participants keep their comments on the parts of the writing that are strong.

Steely says prompts don’t hem thinking in, they open it up. Given the same prompt, one participant might write about what they eat for breakfast while another might write about a battle they fought in during a war.

Prompts, then, can help people approach material that they may not have thought to write about. They can give a small push in an unexpected direction.

When I asked Steely about what makes for a superior prompt, she gave the following advice: “Make your prompts short and open-ended. For instance, ‘After the storm . . . ’ is a good one. It’s only a few words, and it could be about a childhood rainstorm, a thunderstorm, a fight, or it could have nothing to do at all with storms.”

As a short exercise, why not try a writing prompt now? Choose one of these two, and do a ten-minute freewrite that starts with it:

“The project I’m proudest of is . . .” or “This sounds inconsequential, but . . . “

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Walter Keller aka Benjamin Weldon

I have been writing for years now, after taking the Watershed Group last fall it gave me even more insight to scene design for the mind, a poetic way to create the dream machine of the mind to open up and give one that escape we so often feel comfortable in. It was a wonderful experience, and has added the improvement I so needed in my new venture of Children’s Stories. I am sure I will walk away with another valuable asset at this months gathering of writers.

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Mark Levy

Children’s stories? To hold a young reader’s attention is a real art. Best of luck to you. I’m sure it will be a rewarding experience.

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Ricardo Bueno

Now here’s an exercise I’ve never tried before but can see myself benefiting from!

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Mark Levy

Thanks for the comment, Ricardo.

Prompts really are fascinating. You and ten friends could start with the exact same prompt, but when you all read aloud from your work minutes later, you’d discover that each of you had gone in different directions.

If you try the exercise, please let me know how it goes.

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Samantha Hartley | Enlightened Marketing

Love this idea, Mark, and the inspiring examples from Write Around Portland. I always find artistic endeavors need a structure of some kind. A painting is naturally limited by its canvas – or the image of it later in a frame. A meal is constrained artistically by its ingredients and maybe even the structure of carb + protein + veggie or appetizer + main course + dessert.

I find many non-professional writers get most overwhelmed when getting started. The use of a prompt provides a gentle beginning without constraining creativity. Thank you for sharing!

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Mark Levy

An excellent point, Samantha. A good prompt provides friendly constraint.

Thanks so much for commenting.

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