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Use Writing Prompts to Help Spur Creativity

Writing prompts are a good way to exercise and help break through writer's block.

It is said that the best way to learn to write is to write, and the best way to keep writing is to write more. It may seem obvious, but for many people, simply getting words on a page can be a struggle.

One way to flex your writing muscles is to use writing prompts, small ideas that include brief details about a character or situation, designed to spur your creativity. Writing prompts can be a single word - generally a noun or verb - a phrase, or a sentence or two. They bring forth ideas from your subconscious, and allow you to express your imagination.

You can work with a writing prompt by brainstorming, outlining, or writing. Think of this as an exercise at the gym, where you don't worry about doing it perfectly, but rather see it as a way to exercise muscles that you haven't flexed in a while.

You don't need to use writing prompts that match the type or genre that you write in. In fact, it may be better to try writing in another genre to build new writing muscles. There's no expectation of publication, you won't be graded; this sort of exercise is more like a musician doing scales, or a pro cyclist warming up on a stationary bike.

Writing prompts are also a way to break through writer's block. You may be working on a project that you've been struggling with for months, and you've hit a wall. You simply can't see where your characters are going. Rather than sit and stare at your computer, or get sidetracked playing games or watching videos, find a writing prompt to work with. It may have nothing to do with your current project, but your sub-conscious may pick up on elements from the writing prompt and renew your inspiration.

Here are a few ideas.

  • A prince who has been waiting to become king for decades has just been crowned, after his mother, the Queen, passed away. What is he thinking as he eats his first breakfast as king?

  • A young woman and man dated briefly in college, and then drifted apart. Twenty years later, they met in a bar. She recognized him because of a tattoo on his arm, which he had gotten when they were together.

  • A man returns to a place where he had gone on vacation as a child. He had fond memories of frolicking on the beach, and wants to relive those memories.

You can use writing prompts to create characters, situations, or dialogue, but you're not under the stress of having to create something for others to see. To use the musical example again, when professional musicians practice, they don't worry about being judged; they practice to reinforce their memory of music, to exercise tough fingerings, and to work on elements such as phrasing, tempo, and dynamics. Think of writing prompts like that: opportunities to write while focusing on a specific element of writing, rather than creating a complete story. You may want to work on describing scenes, sketching characters, or creating crisp dialog.

Writing prompt resources

You can find millions of writing prompts online; there are plenty of websites that offer daily or weekly writing prompts, or contain lists of hundreds of writing prompts. Here are a few good places to start:

  • Writer's Digest Creative Writing Prompts. This site has weekly writing prompts, and readers are invited to post their 500-word responses in the comments on each week's page. This is a great way to see what others have come up with.

  • reedsyprompts Weekly Writing Prompts. A $250 weekly short story contest based on their writing prompts may tempt you not just to write, but also to submit. There are more than 1,000 prompts available, and you can read submissions and see which stories won prizes.

  • Writing Prompts on Reddit. This subreddit features writing prompts posted by the community, along with short-short stories of at least 100 words. Warning: there's a lot here, and you can easily get sidetracked.

There are also plenty of books containing scads of writing prompts. Here are two examples.

Both of the above books are available in ebook form, which can make them easier to navigate. You can also find plenty of books containing writing prompts by genre: romance, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.

If you've never tried using writing prompts, give it a go. If you thought they weren't for you, take some time to try a few and see if they help you get your creative juices flowing.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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