For Writers Who Hate Prompts

Today’s guest post is by Zack Jeffries

One of the most common types of writing exercises is a writing prompt. Used to inspire a short writing session, prompts can be just about anything, from a few sentences to a single word. Some frequently-found prompts are a beginning paragraph (in order for the writer to continue), or a few words that make up a possible story element, like a character description or plot point.

Prompts are common in classroom settings, workshops, and critique groups. The accompanying writing sessions following a prompt are either timed or presented as homework. Almost always, we writers receive leeway to take what inspiration we will from a prompt and not incorporate it word-for-word.

Some Reasons Prompts May Not Work for Us

Authors with current Works-In-Progress (WIP) may be hesitant to use traditional prompts. Some of us who currently have a WIP feel like we can’t spare the words or creativity.

We may fear that the time, energy, and writing dedicated to the prompt may become a distraction. Often the shiny, new idea can be more appealing than the WIP.

Still more of us already have too many ideas for stories saved up, we don’t need more.

Many do not write in a way that lends itself to traditional prompts. Plotters may need time to outline. Others may need extensive time brainstorming and researching, letting ideas marinate before committing words to paper.

There is often a time crunch with traditional prompts. This can ramp up pressure and anxiety. If surrounded by others writing at a furious pace, these negative feelings can compound with a sense of inferiority, further blocking creativity.

Also, many authors are neurodivergent. We may experience all the reasons listed above and more. A writing exercise can disrupt specific circumstances some need to write. And seldom are traditional writing prompts made with neurodivergent writers in mind.

Aversion to prompts can isolate writers from classrooms, critique groups, or online communities, especially when the work from prompts is shared. With those words on the screen or read out loud, we who fail at the exercise can find ourselves further disengaged.

This can lead to imposter syndrome. If writers use prompts, and I can’t, am I a writer? This is a thought many, including myself, have experienced. So what is the writer who doesn’t like writing prompts to do?

There are some steps we can take to regain control from this deceptively simple writing exercise.

Ways to Use Prompts for Your WIP

One simple pivot that can overcome some obstacles is to steer the prompt to our WIP, even if that means ignoring part of it. For those of us with full-length novels, novellas, or even collections of short stories, we understand writing is a marathon and not a sprint.

Applying this mindset to exercises can hopefully take some pressure off the immediacy of a writing prompt’s time constraints. We can also decide before starting that since we are working on a story already in progress, we won’t be sharing our results, as the audience won’t have the context of the story up to this point.

Giving ourselves such grace can relieve some pressure and help us from getting caught up in our own anxiety, freeing that brain space for writing.

And beyond bending a prompt to our story, there are ways to approach writing prompts. We can make our own, either using parts of the given prompt or simply off the tops of our head. There are resources for writing exercises that utilize nontraditional prompts or no prompts at all.

Make a New Prompt

When making entirely new writing prompts, we can examine what makes a given prompt interesting:

  • What makes this an intriguing story seed?
  • Does it subvert a trope or reader expectation?
  • Does it highlight a specific story element with an interesting choice?

Once we understand the kernel of goodness within the given prompt, we can simply lift it.

Another approach is to offer the prompt to one of our characters. What would they think? How would they approach it? Would they like the use of writing prompts or do they share our distaste?

When making up a writing prompt, a key is misdirection for your mind. By focusing on a conspicuous target, we’re giving our imagination permission to explore and play elsewhere.

One possibility is choosing a single word for a prompt. This can lead to many revelations, especially when choosing a single word with multiple and varied meanings.

Example: “tax”

  • can be a literal fee added to monetary exchanges by a government
  • fatigue from an action, or any demand that elicits a toll
  • in legal terms, it can mean tabulating cost
  • in vernacular, it can mean taking a cut from the price of goods or services
  • tax is also a verb meaning confrontation

All these possibilities can take the writer’s focus off of what makes crafting the scene so difficult … or taxing.

Nontraditional Prompts

One nontraditional approach to writing prompts instead of a story seed is to create a lens through which to describe a scene. We can borrow these lenses from other media, seeing what a writer or director focuses on to tell the story.

Perhaps the character smells a perfume that reminds them of an ex while on a first date. Or maybe a character can’t stop peering at a stain on their shirt amid a hostage negotiation.

This lens can be another misdirection, allowing some freedom to write by taking the focus away from whatever obstacle lies in crafting the scene.

A prompt could also focus on improving our craft. We can tackle certain story elements that are lacking in our work head-on at times when they usually wouldn’t be the focus (e.g., adding organic world-building in a character-centric chapter or reinforcing theme when the scene is heavy with plot beats).

There are also books and social media groups dedicated to nontraditional writing prompts.

Or Don’t Use Prompts

There is no law that says we must use writing prompts. When one is presented, we can use that time to write a scene for our WIP.

Despite their popularity, there are other writing exercises besides writing prompts:

  • Word webs in which we connect relevant words and phrases can develop syntax or theme.
  • Freewriting, which gives us permission to write unencumbered, whether dialogue or description.
  • Interviewing characters, writing out dossiers, or performing word association from a character perspective.
  • Listing out the reader expectations within the subgenre, giving us ideas on tropes and possible subversions.

The Writing Exercise That Works Is the Right One

The purpose of a writing prompt is to help a writer write, not conform. If traditional writing prompts don’t help, then there isn’t much good in forcing them. We can give ourselves the space and grace to find what works for us and not beat ourselves up.

Zack Jeffries is often known as “That writing prompt guy” on TikTok from a series of exercises available by searching the hashtag #ZPrompt. After writing over ten novels under the pseudonyms Z Jeffries and Zachary Jeffries, he is releasing his first writing craft book of nontraditional prompts titled Break Through to “The End.” Jeffries lives in the Midwestern United States with his family and dog, and has intense opinions on pizza. Check out his website HERE.

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