Are Writing Prompts a Waste of Time? 10

WRITING PROMPTS ARE UBIQUITOUS. If you want writing prompts, you can subscribe to any number of writing sites that offer hundreds of prompts delivered to your email box, daily or weekly. Or you can buy books of writing prompts — a quick search on Amazon using “writing prompts” returns over 6,000 results. There’s no shortage of ideas to write about, that’s for sure.

So it would seem that everyone uses them. They’re the way to go if you want to be a writer, right?

Well, it turns out that writing prompts are controversial. To be clear, I’m talking about creative writing prompts used for idea generation and writing practice, not journal-writing prompts which have an entirely different purpose. (And maybe I’ll write a different article on that subject.)

So, what’s the big controversy?

Proponents of creative writing prompts say that they can

  • Help you break through writing blocks caused by fear. For those who get stuck staring at a blank page because they worry about writing badly, using silly prompts gets around that fear because the stakes are so low.
  • Provide a way to practice honing your craft (again, in a low-stakes environment).
  • Inspire creativity when you’re short on ideas.
  • Get you out of a writing rut.
  • Make you question yourself, your writing, the world — in short, help you think “outside the box.”
  • Lead to writing short stories — if the prompt is crafted so that a character is facing a challenge.
  • Help you develop deeper characters, places, and explore alternate events for that novel or memoir you’re writing.

Opponents of writing prompts say they are useless and worse, because they

  • Distract you from the real writing you could be doing.
  • Are a way to procrastinate, and no better than trolling social media sites.
  • Only used to write when you don’t know what you want to say.
  • Keep you from writing your memoir or novel.
  • Keep you from being vulnerable and having to share your writing with others or — horrors — have that writing critiqued.

Jeff Goins, a highly successful nonfiction author says, “Admittedly, prompts can be valuable — as an exercise. But eventually, you don’t need another day at the gym. … Writing prompts are for people who would rather sit on the sideline than get in the game.”

And he has a point. Why waste time on writing something you’re just going to throw away? Why not just write that story, novel, poem, or blog post? Who needs exercises to do that?

I have a different take on the subject. What if they — the proponents and opponents — are ALL right? What if writing prompts can be used creatively for all the reasons bulleted above? And what if they can also be a great distraction and waste of time?

I have created and use writing prompts quite successfully for myself and my students. I use them to help learn to see and write from different points of view, deepen character, develop a sense of place, hone description, and many other creative reasons. I have personally found that prompts — when used with purpose — provide a number of benefits.

And I think that’s the distinction between the two sides of this argument: purpose; reason; intent.

When prompts serves a specific purpose related to a work you are creating (or at least mulling), they can help you overcome fear, hone your craft, get you out of a rut, deepen perspective and reflection, and so on.

If you’re between writing projects, writing to prompts can be a form of play. I know that I always experience a fallow period after completing a book-length work — a period when I feel sort of used up, creatively. At these times, writing to prompts helps me play with ideas while keeping it light, giving time for my next big writing idea to gestate. 

But — and here’s why some authors and writing teachers are so fiercely opposed to them — if you write only to prompts, if you hope they will help you start that novel or memoir but never really start it, if your writing never sees the light of day because you’re floundering around with writing prompts, you’re wasting your time.

You need to ask yourself, Why do I want to write? What do I want to say? What is my story? What is the truth I want to tell the world?

Then, compose that story, write that truth, and be brave enough to send it out into the world. How else will what you have to say impact anyone else?

So, in this sense, I agree with detractors of writing prompts. Do you want to write? Then write! Then, you can use writing prompts just like research, as a way to dig deeper into your subject and enhance your story.

I think of writing prompts like sugar. We all know that too much sugar is bad for you. But, used in moderation, small amounts of sugar can improve the taste of some foods. Just like sugar, writing prompts used in moderation and with intent, can be another tool in your writer’s toolbox.

What do you think?


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10 thoughts on “Are Writing Prompts a Waste of Time?

  • sara etgen-baker

    As I began reading this piece, I thought that the “intent” behind using prompts determines their effectiveness. Then you said it, Amber–the word that drives so much of what we writers do–intent. In measuring my intent with writing prompts I have to be honest and open with myself. Most folks I know pretend that writing from prompts is “real” writing. Yet in my mind, merely writing from prompts is no different than writing on a topic for a class. But if the prompts are used to guide, motivate, and provide direction for a larger writing project, then I agree–they are effective. Prompts are to nudge me (an any writer); they’re not the project themselves. Just sayin’ 🙂

  • Diane Warner

    After years of learning through writing prompts and keeping personal journals, I am finally starting my memoir and it is going great.
    I give myself 2 hours a day and write short chapters as a start. Im learning so much about what I value and have to offer.

  • Melissa Montana

    Writing prompts don’t work for me. It’s too much like school, when the teacher wants a paper about a subject you are not interested in. What works for me is going out into the real world and picking up ideas from whatever I see. If I feel stuck or burned out, it’s better for me to take a few days off and not think about writing at all. Writing prompts just stress me out. I know they help many people, but I had to find my own way of working.

    Btw: Love your newsletters!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      It’s funny that you mention that, Melissa. Because I think there’s a correlation: those of us who really like school and/or the structure that school offers probably enjoy and like prompts, while those who disliked school are more prone to reject them. Hmmm….

  • Renee Howard Cassese

    I see writing prompts as yoga for the writer’s mind. Kind of a stretching of the creative muscles to warm them up and awaken them. I use them between stories if I don’t have a fresh idea, or perhaps am looking for an idea beyond my own list of hundreds. 🙂 I’ve used them in a small writing group as an evening’s entertainment on retreat as a little fun to end the evening after hours of writing on our respective novels. When in the midst of a novel I try to lean the prompt toward a character or plot point which often exposes some new flaw, quirk or plot surprise I hadn’t thought of. Right now I am in a fallow period, trying to decide on writing short stories or beginning a new novel and I am relying on prompts to keep the daily writing habit alive until I settle in to a new project. I think the trick is to know when to move on and start solid work on something new.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Yoga for the writer’s mind — I love this analogy. And it is really fun to write as a group with a prompt and see what everyone comes up with, it’s always so different and amazing how the creativity of our minds takes us in different directions. And yes, those writing prompts really come in handy during our fallow periods, don’t they. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Renee.