I’ve been collecting writing prompts…at least since middle school.
At the moment, I have literally thousands of writing prompts—everything from fiction prompts like “Write a story about…” to blog and journaling prompts like “What’s in your dream home?” And they’re scattered all over—in my Bookmarks folder, on Pinterest, in my email, somewhere in my hard drive.
(Also, for awhile, I kept an Evernote…um…note of random ideas and snippets and thoughts I came up with. I came across that note while researching for this post. Some of the entries include:
“Something about a chef…”
“The caterers forget the white zin for the bride’s grandmother. Chaos ensues.”
Make of those what you will.
Actually, if anyone writes the white zin story, please send it to me. I think that would be a killer short story compilation.)
(AND. Also when reviewing my Evernote archives, I found ALL SORTS OF STUFF. Blog posts saved from 2009 and 2010 – before Pinterest. Most telling? At least a dozen posts and articles about freelancing that I saved back in 2009 – 2011. Why the hell did it take me so long??)
(Final note on Evernote. I had a notebook titled “Wedding” with exactly ZERO notes saved or added after I got engaged. So. I don’t even know.)
So! The reason for this post is a little selfish, to be honest—I wanted to collect all those prompts, or as many as I could, in one place for my reference. I decided my blog is the best place to do that.
Why do I incessantly “collect” these prompts? After all, there’s no possible way I can write all these stories.
Which isn’t the point. It’s not about writing all the things. And it’s not about only writing using prompts. To me, writing prompts have two main purposes:
They get you out of a rut.
When you’re really struggling to come up with anything to write about, when none of your ideas sound remotely exciting or interesting, it’s an excellent practice to pull up a prompt of some kind, whether it’s specific or vague, a character question or a plot twist, a first line, whatever, and set a timer and just get something out.
They get you in a different creative headspace.
If, say, you’re always writing YA short stories, it can be really fun to scribble out a romance scene, or come up with a character for a western. Sometimes it can be good to answer a journaling question instead of trying to get in a character’s head, or make up something crazy and wild instead of trying to write another personal essay.
The ways I use prompts has shifted over time. I’ve gone periods where I have a dated list of prompts and I will go through and write about each one each day, whether it’s “calling” to me or not. Other times, once a week or so I’ll skim through a dozen or more ideas until I find one that gets me nodding my head and I’ll start writing on that.
I almost always use prompts in conjunction with some sort of timed practice. A warm-up, of sorts, to get my “creative writing mind” going before I turn to a larger project—or just to keep the rust from building up during the (too often, too long) periods when my mental energy is focused elsewhere (work, usually).
I very rarely try to write a complete story from a prompt. A blog post, sure, but there are some listed here that specifically challenge you to “write a 1000-word story about ____” and I don’t do that (yet).
All that said—there are, of course, no rules and no limits to what can and can’t be done with writing prompts. So if you’re inclined, enjoy.
This is one of the few you’ve gotta pay for, but I’ve been working through Laurie Wagner’s 27 Days e-course (slowly) and so far I’m loving it (edit: this version no longer available, sorry!). I will probably order the “27 Wilder Days” when I’m done. Less about writing fiction, more about self-exploration.
Last year, Death to Stock issued writing prompts on their Medium page. I imagine you can still write something down and respond directly, though they’re probably not actively reviewing responses. Or just look through the archives and get a jumpstart (there are 26 total).
Doesn’t look like this is updated anymore, but there’s almost 700 prompts in the archives.
Decent archive of themes and “first lines.”
The Write Practice shares daily articles with writing tips and advice, and they all have some kind of writing practice/prompt at the end.
And something really random
(Also, if you sign up for email alerts for the Write Practice blog, you’ll get a PDF of 14 prompts that are expanded versions of some of the popular exercises.)
Of course, Writers Digest: sign up for their email list for a “Writing Prompt Boot Camp” ebook, and then they have weekly writing prompts. I also like their weekly poetry writing prompts (which don’t have to be used for poetry, do whatever you want).
Not so much fiction, more journaling/personal/essay/blogging: I’ve seen other bloggers share “8-minute memoirs” and I kinda love the idea of delving into memories based off a random object. Explanation/overview here and frequently updated prompts here. (Also, you can always turn a journaling prompt into a fiction one by writing it from the point of view of a character, just for fun.)
One of my favorite things to do, when I’m really stuck, is go to a coffee shop or a park or restaurant or somewhere people gather and talk, and I just write exactly what I see. I start with physical, objective observations, like two men sitting at the corner table. Both middle-aged. One with salt-and-pepper short hair and one with longer blond hair, like a stereotypical surfer. The blond is wearing… They’re talking about… Eventually, I move away from the empirical: The salt-and-pepper guy in the Hawaiian shirt is named Ralph and he’s a history teacher. He separate from his wife last summer. He likes to read Tom Clancy novels and adopted a dog after his wife moved out. These “storytelling exercises” also start you in the real world and help you move from there to your imagination.
I love visual writing prompts. Not all of these are great, but they’re definitely designed to challenge your creativity by thinking about bizarre scenarios.
Okay, I also have a ton of saved prompts that are specifically for blogging (and journaling, but mostly aimed at bloggers). I have mixed feelings about these because they’re so damn repetitive. There’s thousands of lists of “show us your workspace” and “what’s your morning routine?” and “your top 5 beauty tips” (for the record, mine are: floss at least 5 times a week, wear sunscreen, almost never put product in your hair or heat-style it, and…ummm…okay, I’m out). But, while there are still a lot of cliche prompts here, there are quite a few good ones too.
However, if you’re looking for non-cliche blogging-type writing prompts, look no further than Alex Franzen:
Fill-in-the-blank titles—that can be used over and over again
Guidance on turning personal experiences into interesting and helpful stories/essays/posts
Presented as (genius) conversation starters, but can easily be used to get you thinking and writing too
More out of the box
More conversation (with yourself) starters (cool thing about these, of course, is you answer one on your blog and then ask readers to share their own stories)
EVEN MORE conversation starters
Want to write a different kind of project? Here.
Again, “conversation starters” (and again: instead of answering as yourself, write your response as a character).
If you really want your standard list of “things to blog about,” this is the best I can find.
More blogging/journaling prompts, again, some cliche, but a lot are actually pretty good—and if you’re using it for blogging, several of these prompts could spur multiple blog posts. Like “What are you a ‘nerd’ for?” could get you writing a handful of posts about different passions or interests. Or the things you were really really into when you were [insert age]. Or the things you tried to get into but couldn’t hold your interest. See? Five bucks but well worth it.
Still want more?
Storymatic. I freaking love this thing. It’s the tool I’ve used most frequently as of late.
Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
In-person writing groups. Search for “writing groups” in your area on Meetup. I’ve just started going to one that meets weekly at a local coffeeshop that has a private separate room for groups like this. The group leader provides a prompt—in this group, it’s usually a short phrase—and we write for about 15-ish minutes, then we each get a chance to read what we wrote. Reading aloud is totally not terrifying. I was shocked to discover that. The first time I went, I was determined, oh no way in hell am I reading anything today. I wound up being the very last person to read. The next time I went, I volunteered to go, like, third. And it was fine. It was even kinda sorta a little bit fun. Really.
What’s really a shame is that, in researching for this post, I dug through archives on my external hard drive. Somehow, I have shit from high school on there, guys. I have attempts at God-awful fanfic. I have horrific poetry. I have old college essays. Thank God I’d had a couple glasses of wine before opening those files.
Anyway, the actual shame is not the writing I found in my hard drive. It’s the pages and pages of prompts and exercises and ideas I’d copied into Word docs, screenshot from blogs probably long gone now, scanned from old school assignments. Stuff I can’t share because if there’s a way to attribute it, there’s no way I’ll ever figure out how.
What I can do, and might do, one day, is start sharing prompts or exercises based on some of the “fiction” I’ve got stored away. I mean, some of those files…weren’t terrible. I could share a line or two as a “getting started” prompt, or somehow turn a half-page start of a story into an exercise. Or something. We’ll see.