Should A Writer Use Writing Prompts?

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There are many creative writing courses, instructive books on creative writing, and influential bloggers who are adamant about the benefits of using creative writing prompts.

I am not one of them.

At both Beloit College’s Bachelor’s program in creative writing, and also at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop, I had a difficult time with the restrictions imposed by some instructors in asking me to write based on a prompt. I personally do not believe that writing prompts should be used by writers, except for when they are suffering through writer’s block.

Creative writers delve into their head to produce their stories. To write based on a prompt, in my experience, does not produce good writing. Rather, the writing that usually results from these prompts tends to be stale.

The primary reasons that I am generally against writers using creative writing prompts are:

  1. It produces a laziness in your creative imagination.  A dependency on creative writing prompts often leads to a lack of ideas brought forth from a writer’s own mind. As a vivid imagination is key to the world building inherent in fiction writing, this obviously has negative consequences.
  2. The topics are usually too general. The best authors have always written fiction that either deviates from the everyday experience, or if drawn from the ordinary, inverts it or provides a special insight into it that is often missed in the hectic nature of most people’s daily lives.Writing prompts, on the other hand, are often meant to have wide applicability. For new writers, this can easily lead to general writing that does not challenge the author to provide their best fiction.

The only times that I would recommend a writer use creative writing prompts are:

  1. For the first month or two of your writing career. Creative writing, like any other skill, needs to be developed. At first, many new writers may have a difficult time even bringing forth ideas, or understanding the parameters of fiction. In this case, using writing prompts to focus your writing can be helpful, rather than throwing yourself directly into the fire, and likely becoming frustrated with the whole notion of creative writing.
  2. When you have a bad case of writer’s block. Now, I believe that writer’s block rarely affects writers who make a consistent practice of creative writing. The literary imagination is like a muscle, and it does atrophy when you do not exercise it. However, every writer will probably have to deal with writer’s block at some point/s in their life. During these periods, utilizing writing prompts may be a method to consider to get your creative juices going once again.

Do you use writing prompts? How do you feel that they have helped or hindered your creative writing? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments. 

-Alfonso Colasuonno graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Beloit College. He is a published author of fiction and poetry. He provides publishing consultancy and editing services for writers who would like to make the process of jumpstarting their literary career simpler and quicker.

 

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5 thoughts on “Should A Writer Use Writing Prompts?

  1. I’ve always depended on Writing Prompts when I’ve had a hard time finding that writing voice of mine, when I’ve had writer’s block. But I actually loved the writing Prompts that my creative writing professor gave us. It would always be something quirky: like write about a relative that is missing a body part or make something up. Or she would give us a list of words to put into a story and my imagination would just jump at the challenge to bring order to the randomness. But after school, most of the time I find the writing Prompts I find online too general. Maybe it’s like you said…I’m not that new creative writer anymore, so they don’t always work for me. Perhaps more experienced writers need more experienced writing Prompts, or something like that. :p

    • Hi Amanda. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Perhaps a good way to put it is that using writing prompts is like having training wheels on a bicycle. If a new writer, as many do, has a bit of fear about judgment of their work or stepping into the unknown of writing, then yes, writing prompts can be a solid way to start gaining confidence; however, I would challenge yourself to move beyond them. You have built up the experience of writing over time, so why not see where your own ideas may take you. 🙂

      All the best,
      Alfonso

  2. I think writing prompts can be useful as a way to stretch your writing muscles, but don’t expect or assume that what comes out of it will be publishable. It can be, but the goal I think should be to see what you can do with restrictions.

    For instance, in my writing group I had everyone tell me the rule they generally follow, something they rely on (like “show, don’t tell” or “strong voice”.) It didn’t have to be a universal rule, though. It could be “use all five senses,” etc. Now each month we’re working on breaking each rule, one by one. We all have to write a few paragraphs in which we try to successfully break the rule. The last rule-breaking exercise didn’t prove fruitful for me in terms of producing good writing, but two members of my group went on to write short stories. So I’d say writing prompts are useful and can produce good writing, but it really shouldn’t be expected. The point is to learn by doing.

  3. Pingback: Writing Prompts – Inspiration or Cop-out? – FewerThan500

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