Writing Prompts: Friend or Foe?

writing prompts typewriter
Office photo created by 8photo – www.freepik.com

In my daily Twitter scrolling a few days ago, I happened upon a post by essayist Paul Crenshaw (@PaulCrenstorm). In the post, Crenshaw referred to writing prompts and 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. But there are upsides, too.

Writing prompts can create 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, which prevents 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

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

Your writing, your personal needs

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, the reader likely isn’t going to care where the idea came from. Instead, the reader likely will be more concerned with elements like feelings of empathy, realism, or effective pacing.

Not all writing prompts are created equal, so choose wisely

Some prompts admittedly 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. 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.