In my daily Twitter scrolling a few days ago, I happened upon a May 11 post by essayist Paul Crenshaw (@PaulCrenstorm). In the post, Crenshaw asked,
“Am I the only writer who not only thinks writing prompts are not good, but that they’re actually harmful?”
After looking through the comments, it was clear to me that plenty of writers share Crenshaw’s view and have some legitimate concerns. For instance, writing prompts can create the following big problems:
- Distraction from other writing projects that might be more important or have upcoming deadlines
- Limiting the creative flow of the writer to a particular path or type of voice, preventing them from finding their own freedom of expression and style
- Solidification of the bias that the writer is “amateur” or not a “real” writer because they “cannot” come up with their own ideas
- Potential loss of quality because the writer is creating based on demand under a feeling of obligation, not because they truly are interested in or moved by a concept
But just as many writers shot back about the positives associated with writing prompts:
- Getting the writer to consider other options for writing that might be outside their niche or comfort zone, thereby helping them be more creative overall
- When well defined, can help writers avoid being daunted by the broadness of “write about anything” so that they actually focus, write and grow more confident
- Can reveal subconscious connections or concepts the writer didn’t realize were lurking
- Can allow the writer to take a mental break from larger project for a change of pace without abandoning the writing process or practice entirely
My view is that writers are highly individual. They need different tools, freedoms and constraints to be consistent, get into a state of creative flow and get better at their craft. Classifying the use of prompts as “good” or “bad” ignores the diversity within the writing community and distracts away from the most important issue–whether the writer is producing a final result that is authentic, fresh and of high quality. If a writer is getting to that point, then reader likely isn’t going to care where the idea came from, instead being more concerned with elements like feelings of empathy, realism or effective pacing.
That said, some prompts are a ton better than others. Good prompts have clear directions (e.g., specific steps, rhetorical mode, etc.) that you can’t misinterpret. They also have clear constraints–it’s how you navigate around those and get creative within limitations that helps you think more imaginatively. Be selective, and don’t settle for the first thing you find in your first five seconds of a Google search.
So if you use writing prompts, you’re right. And if you don’t, you’re right, too. Do what works for you and just write as much as you can, because regardless of where your inspiration comes from, it’s practice that moves a writer from meh to memorable.