Purpose of a Writing Prompt

I have an interesting relationship with writing prompts. It was a writing prompt in the second grade that made me fall in love with writing. We were given a person, place, and thing that we had to use in our stories. From there, we could write anything we wanted. Afterward, we shared the stories we’d created. It was the freedom to write whatever popped into my mind that made me excited about writing, and to hear the different stories of each of my classmates. We all started from the same point, but our stories were so different.

More recently, I’ve participated in writing prompts in my writing group, at conferences, and a few times on my own for fun. I find them more difficult than I did when I was young. I usually have no problems having story ideas pop into my head, feeling the excitement as the story unfolds in my mind, and then capturing it in my journal or on my laptop. My mind trips a bit by being given a prompt though. My creative mind wants to rebel, and it freezes, unable to think of a single thing to write about.

The way I finally worked my way through this, so I can have fun with writing prompts, was to let my mind rebel. Certain writing prompts are created for a specific genre, or lend themselves to a certain type of story. I enjoy creating horror stories and psychological pieces of fiction, and most prompts I’ve been given while sitting in a group do not lend themselves to those genres. For some people, the structure of a writing prompt helps them focus and create a story. For me, it blocks my creativity. I contemplated the purpose of a writing prompt, which is simply to generate an idea for a story. A starting point. With this in mind, I allowed myself the freedom to not be confined by the writing prompt, but to allow it to serve as a spark and write any story that came to me no matter how far it seemed from the original prompt.

I had this point driven home this past weekend when I attended an event on writing memoirs. While I don’t write memoirs, some of my flash fiction pieces and poems blur the lines between fiction and creative non-fiction. Plus, I feel there’s so much to learn from other genres that can be taken and applied to my writing. While the author spoke about writing memoirs and personal essays, I soaked in the information, already dreaming about how to apply it to my work. Then, we started a writing exercise to learn how to start crafting a personal essay. While she discussed the exercise, my mind latched onto a story idea that I could write about. I knew my idea strayed from her original prompt because it was a horror story and not a personal essay. My mind floated away with the tantalizing ideas forming in my mind when the author reminded us that it had to be a real event that happened in our lives.

I think I fell back to the earth with a thud as I realized I no longer had a single idea of what to write about. I thought about breaking the rules anyway, but I figured if she re-emphasized that it must be a real event in our lives, then there had to be a specific reason for it. I also thought, that since it was a workshop, of sorts, on writing personal essays, that maybe I would miss something in the lesson by deviating too far from the subject.

At about that point, my enthusiasm for what we were learning diminished. In hindsight, I think if I would have stuck with my original story, I would have been excited about what I was writing about, and the techniques we were learning would have felt more relevant, and I might have found myself well into the middle of a story that I would later finish and then publish. As it is, I started writing something that I have no interest in pursuing further. And while I still learned several things from that author about personal essays that I will apply to horror, I missed an opportunity to have the information fully resonate with me and my writing.

For me, it drove home the point to write the story that’s demanding to be written, and not to allow myself to be limited by a writing prompt, but to let it inspire me to write a story that excites me. I feel like I should apologize for any author whose class, workshop, or conference I sign up for in the future, but I feel confident that I’ll learn more by letting the writing prompt inspire me to tell the story I want.




How do you feel about writing prompts? Is it a struggle for you to write from a prompt? What do you like or dislike about prompts? And as a side note, I’ll add that these questions are a writing prompt of sorts, to inspire you to participate in the conversation. So let it spark an idea, but don’t let it limit you.


  1. // Reply

    I find it easier to get started if I have a prompt – I struggle to focus because I have too many ideas floating around my head, so a prompt helps to focus my attention. Having said that, I usually end up going off in some direction that has nothing to do with the original prompt.

    But like you, I have to let the story go wherever it wants to. When I took a course in autobiographical writing I was bored to death – I kept wanting to inject some fictional craziness into my life story.

    1. // Reply

      It’s interesting how different types of stories pique our interest. I could write a memoir, but I don’t think I would be interested in the process. I’m interested in exploring the mysterious and horrifying. It makes me excited to have the story unfold before me. In a memoir, I’d already know what happened.
      So, I’m with you, I don’t find it interesting to write non-fiction. It’s a different process, and while I can see the value in having that type of work in the world, I don’t want to be the one to write it. Now watch, now that I’ve said that, one day I’ll be interested in exploring the unknown in the real world and write non-fiction.

  2. // Reply

    As a Friday Flash Fictioneer I write from a prompt almost every week. And to double the challenge, my story must be funny. This is no small task based on some of the prompts, but if I’m going to call myself a humorist then I need to prove it–not just to the readers, but to myself.

    I’ll admit my 100 words stories don’t always address the prompt in literal fashion, but it’s okay if they come across like a second cousin twice removed (whatever that means). The point is I followed through and delivered like a professional. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing I ever wrote, but it wasn’t the worst either.

    The good news is some of those short blasts turned into longer stories that were really fun to write, occasionally winning awards (and money). Like the quote says, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

    1. // Reply

      I think anything that gets the creativity going is fantastic for a writer. Even writing this blog makes me write every week. So if everything else fails, at least I know I’ve accomplished this, and it’s not in my preferred genres.
      I have written flash fiction with word limits, that I have enjoyed quite a bit. I guess I’m a bit particular in when and how my creativity is limited. And I enjoy flash fiction, because it forces me to be more deliberate with my word choice. Every word has to count.
      As far as writing prompts go, when I realized I was applying all these rules to each prompt, which in turn made my mind go blank, I recognized that wasn’t the intention of the prompt.

  3. // Reply

    In my few words: I love writing prompts!

    1. // Reply

      I enjoy them too, as long as long as I allow myself to follow the initial spark of an idea created by them, and don’t try to force the idea into a mold.

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