Get Better at Writing with Prompts

girl writing

Photo Girl writing by ZaCky via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

Prompt writing is a form of automatic writing, a technique that was popularized by the Surrealist art movement. In prompt writing you begin by writing down a word or phrase (e.g., “I remember”) and then continue writing whatever pops into your head at that moment. The idea is to keep your hand moving. If you hit a wall and can’t think of anything else, you can repeat the phrase and then keep going. Natalie Goldberg describes this process in more detail in her book Writing Down the Bones. She suggests setting a timer and committing to keep writing until the timer goes off, no matter what. No need to worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar– just go.

The idea behind this technique, as described by the Surrealists and also by Goldberg, is to access the unconscious mind and bypass our conscious mind’s editor or critic. If you’ve ever written anything, you have probably encountered the critic. You write a sentence or two, and a thought pops into your head: This is stupid. Or why are you writing this? Or fill in the blank with your own critic’s words. Getting ahead of the critic improves your writing by giving you access to your first thoughts, and they are fresher and bolder than anything approved by your critic.

If you do a Google search on writing prompts, you will have plenty to choose from. Or make a list of your own. I like to make a list using a variation of the prompt writing technique: I number all the lines on a page, and then I write prompts until each line has a prompt. You can see the list I made a few days ago in the photo.

list of writing promptsEvery day when I sit down to write, I look at the list and pick something, then write for 3 pages in longhand. (You could do this on a computer, too, if you are a reasonably fast typist.) When I get stuck I repeat the initial prompt or I do another technique I learned from Natalie Goldberg: I draw a line under the last word and then start the next line with “What I really want to say is” followed by whatever pops into my head. Then I just keep writing.

You can also alternate prompts for some interesting results. For example, start the first sentence with “I remember” and start the second sentence with “I forget” and keep alternating until your time is up.

One more thing about prompts: don’t feel like you have to stick with the original subject of the prompt. Prompts are a way to get your writing going, not a way to give yourself a boring assignment. Have fun!

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