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What’s in a writing prompt?

What to do when you're stumped for an idea

What’s in a writing prompt?

My neurodivergent brain, which tends to make unusual connections (good for writing ideas by the way) immediately went to that Frankie Goes to Hollywood song from the 80s, that goes: War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! (Sorry about the ear worm.) Writing prompts often get a similar, but less deserved, response. Here’s why.

Writing prompts, what are they good for?

I’m glad you asked. The trouble with most (but not all) writing prompts is that they don’t go deep enough. Imagine you were on a desert island with only a pen and a cucumber. OK, interesting, but now what? What if you turned out the light and heard the sound of fingernails running down the window? Scary, but what do I do with it? Here’s a fascinating picture of the sea splashing against some rocks. Inspiring, but I still don’t know what to write. A writing prompt is all very well, but it needs to go a bit deeper.

Instructions not included

The other inherent problem with many writing prompts is that they don’t necessarily come with enough instructions. How do I respond to the desert island, the fingernails or the inspiring seascape? What exactly do I write about?

Did anybody order some specificity?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again many times: specificity is the key to good writing. So prompts need to be specific OR contain within them the possibility of getting specific. Some people call this a ‘a creative constraint’. In fact I’ve used that term myself but what I mean here is that specificity is the key component of a creative constraint. It’s the quality that makes it work.

To sum up:

So the best Creative Writing prompts will:

  • Go deep
  • Contain at least some instructions
  • Be specific

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx

P.S. Check out my writing courses here.


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