The Power of the Prompt: A Craft Article

My article about prompts was just published this week at Women on Writing (WOW!). Hope it inspires. Enjoy! 


The Power of the Prompt

By Melanie Faith


Marathoners have running shoes and dancers have footwear of the tap or ballet variety. Cyclists have bikes, equestriennes have horses, racers have zoomy cars. What do writers have that motivates and facilitates our writing practice? I introduce, my friends, the prompt. Or perhaps you're already well-acquainted.


What is a writing prompt? What is the purpose of it? 


A writing prompt is a short statement or series of pithy statements meant to trigger words on a page or screen. Prompts may be as simple as a famous quotation that you reply to, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes they ask a question directly, such as whether you agree or disagree with an idea. They may be themed. They may have a tone in mind--humor or seriousness or sappy love--or they may be general enough that a writer could give the resulting writing many possible tones. They may be focused on one genre, say poetry or fiction, or meant for multi-genres of writing (or even other forms of art). 


Most writers first encounter prompts in middle or high school English classes and university creative writing classes. Other authors get hooked on prompts in workshops and writing seminars, where they often either open or cap the day's discussion of writing skills the group is practicing. Speaking of which, that's another benefit of prompts--you can use them alone, in pairs (literary lunch, anyone?), or in groups however small or large. Prompts can be shared or kept private. Often, authors employ them like pianists and vocalists practice scales--to warm up for the writing of another, unrelated project. I've also had many students who were uninspired to write or unsure of what to write next take a prompt for a spin and then continue to develop that prompt long after, which is another excellent use of prompts. However one chooses to use prompts, their aim is creation, pure and simple.


Where can I find prompts to use in my writing practice? How do I choose a prompt? 


Great question! Classes, seminars, and workshops abound with them, but you can also seek out your own prompts. There are prompt collections for genre writers and themed prompts. You might do a search online for prompts that relate to a specific type of writing you'd like to practice by entering key phrases, such as "seasonal poetry prompts" or "mystery and horror writing prompts." There are whole books of prompts written by genre, such as journaling, as well as wonderful websites that list prompt resources, such as Create Write Now with Mari. If you're interested in a series of inspiring prompts you can use again and again, I've designed a deck just for writers.


Yet, what if you don't have a certain project or even genre in mind? You just want to write, dang it! No worries--there are whole collections of general prompts for just this purpose, such as 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts by Ryan Andrew Kinder at online book retailers. In a general collection of prompts, you can either do a quick perusal of the table of contents (they are often organized by theme, genre, or style of writing) or, as I often do, let serendipity reign--thumb through the book and let the pages open where they may.

Whichever prompt you choose, the content isn't as important as the way of thinking it encourages. Prompts have a marvelous way of freeing ideas like soap bubbles from the depths of our memories, coaxing sentence after sentence to the surface where you'll be off and running.

Try this prompt!
You (or your protagonist) have been asked to showcase a little-known, unusual talent at a community fair's talent contest. Begin on stage and show not only the performer but also the crowd's reaction to this talent unveiling. Go!


I will be teaching a prompt-based course that is sure to be lots of fun, beginning November 1st. Here's the scoop and skinny: Prompted 

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