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What are Writing Prompts?

Updated on February 21, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


Looking for a way to boost your creativity and get your mental motor running when it comes to writing? Here's a tool you can use: writing prompts.

So What are Writing Prompts?

Writing prompts are short, thought provoking statements or questions that provide a topic on which to write. Some prompts may start a sentence or paragraph and ask the writer to finish the thought. Prompts may also be grouped by overall topic or genre, such as business, poetry, novel writing, etc. Additionally, some prompt programs may encourage writers of one genre to try an unfamiliar or uncomfortable genre in order to expand the writers' horizons of possibilities and mental flexibility. For example, business nonfiction writers may be encouraged to try poetry or short stories to improve their writing style and audience appeal.

A writing prompt exercise may specify that the writer write a certain amount of words on the prompt topic within a limited time period. In a workshop setting, that time may be as little as a few minutes. For lower pressure, self-directed exercises, writers may be allowed to choose their own time for completion, be it minutes, hours or days.

Here's how prompts can help build writing skills:

  • They can force the writer to dig deeper mentally or emotionally to address the topic.
  • For writers that lack focus, they can help quiet distracting thoughts and influences.
  • Writers sometimes fall into a rut or dry spell. Prompts can help keep up momentum by keeping new topics bubbling into consciousness and encouraging experimentation.

Where Can Writing Prompts be Found?

There are many ways to access sources for prompts, including:

  • Online sites that offer them for free or for a fee. The prompts may be offered right on the site or they may be served up via email as a subscription. Some sites allow writers to contribute prompts for other writers or members in a community.
  • Books that may, in addition to the prompt, provide space to write down thoughts, turning the book into a writing journal.
  • Live workshops held by libraries, schools or networking groups. These workshops are usually led by a facilitator who announces the prompt, times the exercise and may encourage sharing of both writing done and participant feedback on the topic or exercise.

Do use writing prompts?

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Tips for Using Writing Prompts Effectively

While some ideas that may be spawned by a writing prompt exercise can be the basis for a blog post or book, many will not be ready for public viewing now... or ever. That's really okay! Creativity can be a messy business. So here are some tips for making the most of writing prompts:

  • Archive. You might generate a slew of writing bits and pieces when you start using prompts. Now, what do you do with them? Since you never know when some bit might become the basis for something bigger and better, archive your exercises in a special place (either physically in a folder or an electronic folder) for future reference. Tagging or giving these pieces descriptive titles will help you more easily find the bit you want. For example, don't title your exercise, "Exercise October 23." Rather, "Business Planning for Success" would be easier to identify the entry in your file.
  • Don't Obsess, Don't Stop. Perfectionists out there will have a hard time with this! For particularly difficult prompt topics, the temptation is to keep working on that exercise until it's publication worthy. While your commitment to excellence is laudable, this will usually keep you stuck on one exercise for hours or days—even months!—and you've passed on the opportunity to spend time on more suitable topics for you. Granted, if the difficult prompt topic is relevant to your business and goals, it might warrant some extra time delving into it. But keep moving forward with the exercises and maybe take a bit of a break to get some fresh perspective before returning to the problematic prompt.
  • Get Feedback from an Outside Party. In a workshop setting, participants may be given the opportunity to share what they've written with the group. This can provide some instant, peer-to-peer, usually nonjudgmental, input. Outside this setting, ideas that may have merit for further development could be reviewed by a colleague or paid editor. Caution! To prevent theft of ideas, make sure to get reviews from only trusted sources who will protect your copyrighted material.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2015 Heidi Thorne


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