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April 16, 2019

Writing Prompts: Helpful? Or a Waste of Time? — Guest: Savannah Cordova

Multi-color reflections on ripples in water with text: Writing Prompts: Helpful or Wasteful?

Before we get into today’s post, if you heard about my surgery last week, everything went well, but it will be months before we know if the experimental procedure worked or not, so I appreciate all your good wishes. And while I’m recovering, I’m extra grateful for today’s guest post as well. *grin*

Savannah Cordova is one of the writers with Reedsy. In addition to being a great resource site for writers—with helpful blog posts, classes, and matching services for editors, cover designers, and marketers—Reedsy also organizes short story contests based on writing prompts. As one of the Reedsy staff members who works on the contests, Savannah is the perfect person to dig into the usefulness of writing prompts.

Writing prompts are one of those things that some writers love and others never touch. They’re often heralded as inspiration or creativity helps, but they can also distract us from the writing we’re “supposed to” do. Let’s look at the pros and cons of writing prompts and how to make them more helpful to us.

Please welcome Savannah Cordova! *smile*

*****

Writing Prompts:
A Frivolous Exercise?
Or the Key to Unlocking Inspiration?

By Savannah Cordova

Whether it’s a creative writing class, the starting point for a contest, or just random happenstance, you’ve all probably come across writing prompts at some point in your lives. But while you should already be familiar with the general concept, you might not realize just how many different applications they have — or what makes for a genuinely helpful, inspirational prompt versus a not-so-helpful one.

While writing prompts have never been more copious in the creative writing world, that doesn’t mean that they’re always constructive. Indeed, another thing that all us writers understand is that quantity ≠ quality. So in order to find good writing prompts, you have to really know where to look.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we dive into truly excellent prompts and where to find them, let’s quickly go over the various pros and cons of writing prompts as a whole. If you’ve ever tried using writing prompts before, you’ll likely recognize certain experiences and sentiments on both these lists.

Pros of Writing Prompts

When it comes to benefits, writing prompts can:

  • Jumpstart your writing when you’re stuck. It’s no coincidence that writing prompts are one of the most-prescribed cures for tough cases of writer’s block! Grabbing a quick topic or thought exercise really can work wonders on your creative system, especially if you haven’t written anything in awhile.
  • Get you out of your creative comfort zone. Even if you’re not blocked per se, you might be stuck in the habit of writing about the same subjects constantly — which can really hinder your writing, even if you don’t know it. Writing prompts force you to get outside your comfort zone and try something new.
  • Reinvigorate tired writing. This one ties into the previous pro. Because writing prompts help you respond innovatively to new ideas, they really freshen up not just your material, but your actual prose. If you feel like your writing style has become a bit humdrum lately, it’s definitely a tack worth trying.
  • Help you practice for contests. As mentioned in the intro, writing prompts are frequently seen in writing contests! After all, most competitions don’t just let you submit whatever you want — there have to be some specific stipulations, which typically come in the form of prompts (“write a story about a taxi driver,” “write a story set in a circus,” etcetera). So if you’re planning on entering a writing contest, but want to get some practice first, free-range writing prompts are a great place to start.

Cons of Writing Prompts

On the other hand, in terms of potential drawbacks, writing prompts can also:

  • Result in forced-sounding prose. If you choose a prompt that’s too far out of your comfort zone (or one doesn’t really inspire you), it’s no surprise that the response will usually come out sounding forced. This is something that may improve with practice, but it can also just be discouraging.
  • Distract you from a more important project. With great power comes great responsibility; the same is true of writing prompts. While they’re perfect for rebooting your system or practicing for an upcoming project, they can also be disruptive when you’re already in the middle of something you need to finish. It’s easy to start working on a prompt and tell yourself you’re being productive — but if you’re only doing so to avoid working on another project, that’s not really productivity.
  • Frustrate you when they don’t work out. Even if you choose a writing prompt that sounds really interesting and inspiring, you still might not get the brilliant outcome you’re envisioning.

What Writing Prompts Can & Can’t Do

On the note of that last bullet point, here’s my disclaimer: writing prompts are not a magical solution. Just like any other widely propagated writing advice, writing prompts are not going to instantly transform you into a bestselling author (unless you are very, very lucky).

Are writing prompts helpful? Or a waste of time? Savannah Cordova of @ReedsyHQ shares her insights... Click To TweetWhat they will do is help you create something new and hone your craft along the way. Whether they work incredibly well or just okay also depends on what you need to work on at this point in your writing career.

That being said, if you want to maximize your chances of producing something good, there are certain types of writing prompts that seem to inspire people more than others. I’ve done a bit of research on the subject and have shared my findings below — so if you’re looking to optimize your prompt choices, read on!

What Makes a Writing Prompt More Inspirational?

At Reedsy, we run a weekly short story contest, where we send out a set of five prompts and participants can choose any of those prompts as the basis for their story. These five prompts are all united under one theme, so we’ve gotten a pretty good idea of which topics foster the most entries!

What makes a writing prompt inspire more creativity? 4 theories from Savannah Cordova of @ReedsyHQ... Click To Tweet(By the way, if you want to sign up for that contest, you can enter right here. You’ll get five new prompts in your inbox every week, plus the chance to win a cool $50 for your story.)

Over the past year or so, we’ve had about a dozen themes that produced 100+ entries to that week’s contest. Examining these high-yield prompts for similar features and recurring patterns has led me to the following theories about which writing prompts inspire people the most.

Theory #1: Subversive Prompts

The most consistent trend we see is actually that of subversion.

It might sound ironic, but some of the most fruitful themes we’ve used have been very different from what people typically think of as “writing prompts”:

  • The theme that spawned the most entries over the entire past year was photos, rather than written prompts: we included five different pictures in our newsletter and asked contestants to write a story based on one of them.
  • That photo week was closely followed in popularity by our microfiction week, in which every entry had to be 1500 words or less (the usual limit is 3000).
  • Another very popular week was one where we asked contestants to “write about writing.” This encouraged people to draw upon their experiences of writer’s block for their stories — basically, a super-meta prompt.

If there’s a lesson to take from this, it’s that prompts tend to work extremely well when they don’t feel like typical writing prompts — perhaps because they put less pressure on the writer. (Reverse psychology!) However, if you personally prefer more traditional prompts, don’t worry: we’ve got plenty of those coming up too.

Theory #2: Prompts That Develop Character

Another tactic that’s proven successful for our contest is having prompts that emphasize character development.

You might think that a lot of prompts would do this — but just because a prompt involves a certain type of character (for instance, we had one week centered around character archetypes, which got a decent but not unusually high number of entries) doesn’t necessarily mean that character will develop.

One particularly strong week was about deliberately dynamic characters. The prompt was to show how a character could undergo a journey that changed them.

Participants needed to write about a character that experienced one of the following personality transformations:

  • Logical → Illogical
  • Pessimist → Optimist
  • Trusting → Skeptical
  • Fearful → Brave
  • Unsure → Decisive

But of course, the story behind that transformation was completely up to the writer. This ambiguity seems to be key to most of the best writing prompts used throughout our contest: the more left up to the writer’s interpretation, the better.

Theory #3: Dramatic Prompts

Dramatic prompts are another great way of inspiring writers, at least according to our results.

This drama can encompass a number of things (indeed, the “dynamic characters” prompt could be considered a dramatic one). However, it appears to be most effective when there’s an element of the dangerous or unknown.

Case in point: one of our most popular themes last year was “danger” (cue joke about that being our middle name). The prompts themselves were fairly basic — write about your protagonist being in danger, causing danger, saving someone from danger, etcetera — but the results were pretty outstanding! Even though we sent out that particular newsletter in June (summer is a notoriously slow period for writing), we received a total of 118 entries.

Another more dramatic scenario we used centered around something happening in the middle of the night. Each of the five prompts began with “It’s 2 am and…” — we got a ton of stories about witching-hour murders and other criminal acts.

That’s human nature: we all love a bit of drama! So if you’re feeling like your writing lacks excitement as of late, consider turning your pen to a dramatic prompt.

Theory #4: Prompts That Provide an Ending

Finally — and fittingly, as we’re drawing to the end of this article — writers seem to love prompts that gesture toward an ending.

I personally think it’s because ending a story is one of the most intimidating parts of writing. And while this might seem to contradict the “keeping prompts ambiguous” rule, you can see from the following examples that it’s possible to have such prompts where the ending is still very much up to the author:

  • Write a story that ends with a shocking plot twist.
  • Write a story with an open ending.
  • Write a story that ends with a Happily Ever After.
  • Write a story that ends by jumping forward several years.

All of these options provide a rough framework for a story’s ending; however, the author still has to determine how to get there, and what the precise nature of it is. Such prompts take some pressure off the writing process (similar to the prompts in the first theory) by deciding one important aspect, while still leaving plenty of room for creativity.

Final Thoughts

Similarly, this seems to be just about the sweet spot for writing prompts: specific enough to form the outline of the story, but not so specific that it’s already filled in for you.

The most inspiring prompts do exactly that — they don’t mandate, they inspire. Luckily, if you’re currently struggling with a prompt that doesn’t inspire you, there are plenty more out there to choose from! You just have to find the one that works for you.

*****

Savannah CordovaSavannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of plot twists (when they’re done right).

You can read more of her professional work on the Reedsy blog, or personal writing on Medium.

*****

Need Story Inspiration?

Reedsy is a marketplace that allows authors to collaborate with the best book editors, designers, publicists, and marketers in the publishing industry. Right now, Reedsy is running a weekly short story contest.

If you write a short story using one of our weekly five writing prompts and submit it to us, you could win $50! Enter the competition simply by joining our newsletter on this directory of writing prompts.

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*****

Thank you, Savannah! Even though I’ve only used writing prompts a few times, I agree with your take on how they can be helpful. In fact, another pro I’d add to your list of pros and cons, especially for a writing prompt contest like Reedsy’s, is that prompts can give us practice in drafting, editing, and polishing quickly, learning when we can call our writing “done.”

Other pros I can think of include getting lots of practice establishing settings, or characters, or situations, etc. Or we might learn to recognize our voice, as we jump from one prompt to another and yet see similarities.

A personal reason I agree with Savannah’s perspective on prompts is that one of the few times I completed one, it inspired me to write a scene from my then-work-in-progress. That scene later made it into the published version of the story, so I know that writing prompts don’t have to be a waste of time. *grin*

(For those curious, a workshop at a writing conference gave a prompt along the lines of “a character is surprised by something out of place.” That prompt led me to scribble down a scene of the heroine of Pure Sacrifice finding a blue bead that proved the hero had been in her room the previous night, making her wonder just how much of her dreams were actually memories.)

Savannah’s theories are fantastic insights into what makes a prompt more likely to be inspirational, creativity-triggering, or helpful to us. Another insight I’d add to her fourth theory is that a story ending is often why we want to write the story. So a prompt that inspires us to think of an interesting ending can make us excited to write the rest of the prompt, just as a story climax we want to explore can keep us excited enough to write a whole novel. *smile*

Have you ever used writing prompts? What makes you want to complete a prompt? Have prompts ever helped you with your writing or creativity (and if so, how)? Can you think of any other pros or cons? Which of Savannah’s theories resonates most with you—and why?

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Sieran

Thanks for the post, Savannah! I believe I’m getting a bit fatigued with my writing these days, and maybe that’s why I’m writing so slowly or just avoid my story altogether. (It took me a long time before I could even admit that I was getting fatigued.) In fact, I was reading about this theory in psychology, Flow, which is that deeply satisfying, in-the-zone experience. One of the requirements for Flow, is for the challenge to match your skill level. I realized that my skills have already exceeded what I’m currently doing. So I encouraged myself to raise the difficulty level of my writing, and lo and behold, I felt more interested and engaged again.

Anyhow, that ties in with what you said about people who need to try something new, who are tired with their current writing style and subject matters. I really need a bigger challenge and to experiment with new things in my stories! I would definitely like to check out your list of writing prompts. ^_^

Savannah
Savannah

Hi Sieran! I know exactly what you mean about flow — I was a psych major myself & think of it often (and especially of this chart). Anyway, using prompts is definitely a great way to challenge your writing when you’re feeling a bit less “flowy” than usual. Hope you enjoy those prompts we’ve compiled over at Reedsy! 🙂

Bran Ayres
Bran Ayres

I think too many prompts do end up being too specific and then alienate a lot of us genre writers. So I definitely appreciate prompts that are just vague enough to give me plenty of latitude. I’ll use my local writers group as an example. We are sponsoring a contest and the since we are a romance focused group they wanted a romance. The prompt ‘the hero and heroine get stuck in an elevator’ was chosen. I mentioned that perhaps it would be nice to readjust the wording and allow for non-cisgender, heterosexual romance. It was changed to ‘the main characters get stuck in an elevator.’ A very simple change but one that felt so much more welcoming to the LGBT+ writers.

Savannah
Savannah

Hi Bran — I completely agree that the more open-ended, the better when it comes to prompts! And naturally that applies not just to the ideas, but to the phrasing, especially when it otherwise has the potential to alienate people. Sounds like your writers group made the right call (and good on you for suggesting it!)

Sieran

Bran, omg yeah “the hero and heroine” indeed. >< It has honestly been years since I've written a cishet romance. I haven't even written a transhet romance before…(unless you count the one I wrote between a trans woman and a transmasc gender fluid person.)

Hey I noticed that "the main characters get stuck in an elevator" allows for polyamorous romances too. ^_^ I'd like to try writing a poly romance one day.

Denise D. Young

I don’t generally go out looking specifically for writing prompts, but I find a lot of inspiration in places like Pinterest, where I have boards dedicated to Character Inspirations and Setting Inspirations. I’ll see an image of a potion bottle in front of a window, for example, and that will inspire a scene or story idea! There are so many wonderful ideas all around us, just waiting for us to listen to them. Great post, Savannah!

Savannah
Savannah

Thank you Denise! And I love Pinterest as well, both for prompts to get me started & for visual aids to help me imagine settings and characters I’ve already created. The Internet certainly holds endless inspiration — as does the world around us, as you say! 🌎

P.I. Barrington

Great article, Savannah! I used to think that writing prompts were for people who couldn’t come up with anything on their own. Then one day, I opened a newsletter I still don’t remember signing up for, and there were a photo and a request for all to use the picture as a prompt. I did once, and I was hooked! (It helps that those pictures were always imagination-inspiring and controversial simultaneously.) The only thing that stopped me was a cardiac arrest! I think if it’s a situation like that, then it’s well worth giving it a shot. JMHO

Savannah
Savannah

Thanks P.I. — and wow, very glad your cardiac arrest only stopped you temporarily! Sounds like you’re a natural-born writer, and I’m sure you’ve made some great use of prompts since then. (What exactly was the photo prompt that inspired you so much, by the way — if you remember?)

Robin LeeAnn

I agree with you! I wrote something similar on my own blog once how it’s better to use them as inspiration – to get your creative genius going – but don’t use it as what to get your whole story off of. It’s okay to build your stories from them, but still add in your own ideas.

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[…] Hale explains why writing yourself into a corner can improve your writing, Savannah Cordova weighs the pros and cons for writing prompts, and Sherry Howard discusses maximizing your author […]

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