Writing prompts and other writing exercises have enjoyed a surge in popularity over the last several years as more and more of us have begun to embrace the idea that we want or need to share our words with the world. After all, it’s not always easy to transmit those gorgeous thoughts from your mind to the blank page, and we all need a bit of help from time to time.
But as enticing and beneficial as writing prompts can be if you’re stuck for an idea, they also can turn into a BIG problem if you’re not careful.
In fact, used too often …
Writing Prompts Can Limit Your Productivity as an Author
It’s very easy to be seduced by exercises and prompts because they force you to write, and most of them encourage you to tap into your creative inkwell.
That can be great and constructive when you’ve been writing technical articles for awhile or stuck with a work schedule that won’t let you get any writing done. But it doesn’t take long at all for the tool to turn on its master and start hacking away at your real ambition.
A typical scenario might play out like this …
You make a resolution to write a novel in the New Year, and you sit down at your keyboard the first Monday night in January. Your idea is perfect and has been sprouting in your brain for weeks, bursting against the inside of your skull all day at work, and it’s ready for you to bring it to life.
You pop open Scrivener, put your fingers on the keyboard … and the cursor flashes at you. After 15 minutes, you haven’t written a word, and after an hour, you might have dribbled out a few half-hearted sentences.
Discouraged, you rub your eyes and then buzz over to your email, then to Facebook, and then maybe to one of your favorite writing websites.
There, you find that the latest post features an intriguing writing prompt: “Write a story about a writer, from the point of view of his keyboard.”
Now that, you can do.
And it will only take you another 30-60 minutes to crank out the 1000 words suggested by the “flash fiction” subtitle of the post. So you go to town and knock off a decent little tale.
By that time, you’re pretty much spent from a creative standpoint, so you log off and go about the rest of your evening.
Tomorrow will be the day that you start on that novel, though. Tomorrow for sure.
But when tomorrow comes and you again try to begin your book, you land in exactly the same wordless heap of frustration that derailed you the night before.
Well, you think, I didn’t have any trouble finishing that writing exercise, and it was kind of fun. Maybe I can find another one.
And you do.
And then you do the same thing the next night, and the next, and then you miss a couple of nights altogether.
Before you can even say “still got love handles” it’s the end of January, and your writing dreams are starting to blur.
Maybe when I’m not so busy, you think, when you think about writing at all.
How to Use Writing Prompts to Improve Your Writing Life
None of the above should be construed to say that I don’t love writing prompts, because I do. Heck, I even post one every day on this here site, and they can be a ton of fun.
But, used too often, or in the wrong way, writing prompts become little more than distractions to keep you from actually meeting your goals as an author (you do have some sort of goals, right?).
They’re like email or Facebook branded especially for authors. They’re like eating frozen yogurt by the gallon when you’re trying to get in shape because it has “yogurt” in the name — they’re good for you. So more has to be better.
But it’s not.
Don’t despair completely, though, because there is a RIGHT way to use writing prompts and other writing exercises.
Or rather, there are several …
Ways That Writing Prompts Can Help You Improve as an Author
Writing Prompts Can Inspire Your Next Great Idea
If you’re between projects and really stuck for an idea about what to write next, then prompts are one of the best ways to come up with a new story. Your next great tale may not be spelled out explicitly in a given prompt, but it could be lurking in the thoughts that prompt inspires.
Writing Prompts Can Enhance Your Creativity
Working through a series of writing prompts will expose you to new ideas and new ways of looking at various situations, which can inspire your own creative ideas.
Beyond that, if you actually follow several writing prompts and flesh them out over a series of consecutive days, you’ll begin to free your thought processes and your writing will become more fluid. It’s similar to the benefits of free writing, and, in fact, writing prompts and free writing are wonderful complements to each other.
Writing Prompts Can Help You With Specific Writing Problems
Once you get past the potential laxative effects of writing prompts, one of their primary benefits is helping you “fix” what’s broken with your writing.
For instance, if you know that you have trouble writing compelling dialog, then you can focus on prompts that call on you to play out conversations between two or more characters. Do this over and over until you begin to feel more comfortable and capable, and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on your “practice” prose.
One of my favorite places to do this is at TheWritePractice.com, whose primary purpose in life is to help authors rehearse our craft in this fashion.
Writing Prompts Can Help You Network
Leaning again on the example of TheWritePractice.com, writing prompts can help you make contact with your fellow authors. If you’re not shy about sharing your work — and you’re going to have to get over that eventually if you want anyone to read your stuff — then do your prompt-answering in public if you can.
Your fellow writers are a tremendous source of inspiration, feedback, and commiseration, and any opportunity to make those connections is worthwhile.
Writing prompts are a lot of fun and they can be a useful device for helping you get “unstuck” and for honing your skills — if you use them judiciously. Just don’t let writing exercises get in the way of becoming the author you want to be.