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A Quick Writing Experiment

What to do when you're stumped for an idea

Try these writing prompts:

No instructions – just write whatever you want to for as long as you want to about the following. You can swap out the content of these prompts in any way you like. In fact, all the way through this writing experiment, you can swap out any details you want to as you go. Here is your first set of prompts:

  1. Write about a person who lives in a castle.
  2. Write about a beautiful clearing in a forest.
  3. Write about an argument.

Now try these. This is a bit of an experiment so bear with me:

  1. Write by hand for 5 minutes.
  2. Visualise (or make notes on) a person, place or event.
  3. Write about the person, place or event using all 5 senses.

How did you get on? And what do you think of the prompts themselves? If you wrote something then brownie points go out to you!

What did it take / would it take for you to actually write something in response to these prompts? Write down everything you can think of in response to this question. If you stopped to write something (thereby winning your brownie points) which prompts did you use and which did you skip? Which of the prompts do you prefer?

Now try these writing prompts:

Set a timer for 5 minutes and write by hand. Visualise what you’re going to write about first if you can, filling in the details using all of your senses. If visualisation isn’t your thing, make some notes instead. Here are the prompts:

  1. Write about a person.
  2. Write about a place.
  3. Write about an event.

Answer the same questions as before. What did you think of these prompts and what did it take to use them?

Here’s a fourth set of prompts to try:

Do the same as before: set the timer, write by hand, and fill in the sensory details.

  1. Think about a time you experienced something really special as a child. Use it as inspiration but write about it from the perspective of a made up person.
  2. Think of an ancient or otherwise interesting tree you’ve seen in pictures or in real life. Imagine it in its prime: there is a treehouse at the top – write about it.
  3. Remembering an event that changed you in some way, write about it but change the time, location and people involved.

Answer the same questions. What did you think of these prompts and what did it take to use them? And finally…

Try these three prompts

Same instructions as before about the timer and the sensory details. Read all of the prompts through first but treat them as separate exercises. You can change any of the specifics.

  1. Describe a sixty-year old punk rocker who lives by the sea in Cornwall (or a seaside town you know well). It’s 1975. Start by brainstorming punk rockers, the seaside town and the seaside.
  2. Describe a bench by the sea near where he lives, which commemorates someone he’s lost. Start by imagining benches you know well – in your garden, in the park etc.
  3. The sixty-year old punk rocker meets a sixteen year old girl on the bench. She’s playing truant from school. They talk. Base the beginning of the dialogue on a conversation you remember where there was a big age gap between the speakers or on a conversation you’ve had with a stranger on a bench.

Once more, answer me this: What did you think of these prompts and what did it take to use them?

Spot the difference

How were these prompts different from each other? You’ll have noticed that some were more detailed than others – what else was different? Let me explain!

Remember I said in my last post on prompts that the best ones go deep, and are specific (or contain the possibility for depth and specificity) and come with instructions?

  • The first set of prompts weren’t deep, were vague, and came without instructions.
  • The second only contained instructions but almost no content at all.
  • The third set contained specific  instructions – it would be possible to go deep if you wanted to – but the prompts were rather general. 
  • The fourth set had the instructions, the possibility of depth, AND connected the writing to YOU but they were fairly general again – although the specificity was better than in the previous iterations.
  • The fifth set of prompts gave you detailed specific instructions, it would be possible to go deep AND connected the writing to YOU.

What does it take to use these prompts?

What if…? The more general / less specific the prompt, and the fewer instructions it comes with, the more you have to employ ‘what if?’ You have to fill in more of the context for yourself.

Trust. Prompts with instructions but vagaries about content also require an imaginative leap: this time trusting that doing the thing (writing by hand for 5 mins or visualising first for example) will produce interesting results.

Willingness. Yes you need willingness to give it a go all the way through! But as the content and instructions got more detailed and specific, even though I said you could swap out any of the details, it feels as if you are losing control of what you’re writing about. So you need a willingness to follow the constraint.

Do you want fries with that writing prompt?

In fact, all theses sets of prompts were the same: write about a person, place and event. Some would have been more helpful to you than others. Decide which, and next time you’re offered a writing prompt you can ask yourself what it comes with, then you’ll know whether to use it or not.

More soon. Until then, happy writing.

Louise xx


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