Columns > Published on September 13th, 2017

Out of Inspiration? Turn to Writing Prompts

Ah, inspiration. Or, as some writers might instead say: Hello, darkness, my old friend.

Let’s face it: we’re all afraid of the day a drought sucks us dry of story ideas for 10,000 years. It affects even the greatest of writers. “I've often said that there's no such thing as writer's block; the problem is idea block,” said Jeffrey Deaver, while Maya Angelou admits that she can sit at a desk for weeks, writing the “most boring and awful stuff” — that is, “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat” — when the inspiration just isn’t there.

So what can you do whenever you sit down to write, feeling not unlike the Dead Sea? Though a bunch of advice exists out there, much of it ends on this important note for writers: you shouldn’t just give up and stop writing.

Easier said than done, right? But that’s when writing prompts step into the picture. Here are some of the ways I’ve found they work to boost your writing. 

Spark an idea

Let’s start with the most obvious way in which writing prompts are useful. “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them,” said science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card.

But on a bad day, when you just can’t see any story ideas in sight — well, in steps the writing prompt. It’s a curious sort of Good Samaritan: brief enough to give you plenty of room to flesh it out, but so potent that it kickstarts your creative muscles again.

Like Card said, story ideas are sometimes right in front of our eyes, whenever we’re walking. So you can think of a writing prompt as a sort of a scenic walk, but for your mind.

Looking for a writing prompt to keep you inspired, 365 days of the year? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered:

  • Calendar of 365 Writing Prompts: Brought to you by Wordpress.com, this calendar is a writer’s dream. There’s a prompt for every day of the year — and sometimes it even gets topical. Case in point: on January 2nd, your prompt is, “Have you ever made a New Year’s Resolution that you kept?”
  • 346 Equally Quirky Writing Prompts: Here’s another set of 346 prompts that are a tad more unconventional.

Try out new techniques

Did you know that Part III of The Waste Land was the result of some experimental writing in which Eliot engaged while on a break during the summer of 1921? Breaking new ground keeps moving us forward. And there are more than a zillion ways to write a book, which means that there’s acres of dirt upon which you can experiment.

But it’s much tougher to try some out-of-the-box writing technique when you’re already knee-deep in a novel. One of the coolest aspects about writing prompts is that there’s absolutely no pressure to stick to the novel’s rules. Time to build a voice with a gothic Victorian flourish, perhaps. Do you want to try and write from a teenager’s perspective? Or give third-person omniscient a whirl? There’s no shortage of ideas you can use writing prompts to practice on, really.

Want to cut your experimental writing teeth on some prompts? Check out the below:

  • The Time Is Now: What’s best about this Poets & Writers page is that you can use its search bar to filter the prompts. So whenever you want to poke a toe into a different genre (say, poetry, or nonfiction), you can go straight to this dependable database of genre-diverse writing prompts.

Community Building

While writing a novel is (too often) a solitary affair, writing prompts need not be. You only need to take a peek into the world of Twitter, where the tags #writingprompts and #amwriting are ripe with authors prompting each other and supporting one another.

One of my favorite examples of an impromptu writing prompt spree started with this Tweet, which states that the first sentence of any story can be improved by making sure the second or third sentence is, "And then the murders began.” It created a party on Twitter and inspired a bloody onslaught of short stories from all over the world, from “‘I wonder what Piglet is doing,’ thought Pooh. And then the murders began,” to “One sunny Sunday, the caterpillar came out of a tiny egg. He was starving. And then the murders began.”

Then you’ve got r/writingprompts, which, with 11,447,923 subscribers, is always a reliable source for inventive and off-beat prompts. (Examples include: “They want Mars to be a prison planet” and “You are a wizard with 1,000 years of professional wizarding experience, applying for a new wizarding job. You need to submit a resume.”) Writers come together to answer prompts — and react to others’ answers. It’s a collaborative, creative community, built pretty much solely upon writing prompts.

Looking for even more writing prompt communities? Here’s are two secret weapons:

  • Quora: If you’ve got the time to dig into it, this question-and-answer site is a goldmine for prompts. Its algorithm offers you entries in topics that you already enjoy, but more than that you can find random delightful prompts every time you browse. To give you an idea of the breadth of topics you might encounter, there are entire pages on Birdwatching, Shipwrecks, and Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Writer’s Digest: Granted, this page isn’t exactly a community, but Brian Klems is a trusted name in writing — and Brian’s the one who comes up with these prompts, posted weekly.

Low stakes, more fun

Sometimes, the creativity comes when there’s absolutely no stress. That’s when writing is fun, not work. High stakes (such as writing for a novel) means pressure to produce. . . which brings about writer’s block.

You can maximize your return. For authors, ideas are worth a million bucks, but writing prompts are actually a dime a dozen, if you know the right places to search. As I mentioned above, you can find tons of them on Twitter and Reddit. Some writing contests are built around writing prompts, including Reedsy’s. And once you’ve found inspiration again? Create your own writing prompts! Share them to pass on the favor and come to another struggling writer’s aid.

So on this note, I’ll sign off with one more writing prompt for you to use on a morning when the ideas are coming slow:

“He wanted to rest in peace, but with words."

About the author

Emmanuel Nataf is a Founder at Reedsy, a marketplace and set of tools that allows authors and publishers to find top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy's services.

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Freeimages.com Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Reedsy | Editors with Marker (Marketplace Editors)| 2024-05

Submitting your manuscript?

Professional editors help your manuscript stand out for the right reasons.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.