Bust Through Writer's Block Using Writing Prompts
We have all these great ideas for things we want to write. But the minute we sit down to capture them, our brilliance fades. The blank page seems to mock us, reducing our writing dreams to indulgent fluff. It seems impossible to take the jumble of thoughts and pull them into something cohesive, let alone good. Better to tend to the laundry or email than face the fear of failing that pops up when we try to write.
I’ve been teaching and coaching writers since 1996. I have learned that it’s not the blank page or our seemingly valid and wide array of procrastination excuses that stop us. It’s raw fear. We sideline our writing dreams with this angst about writing because if we don’t write at all, failure can be avoided. Again and again, my clients have come to me with these two questions:
Who cares what I have to say? Will it be good enough?
Everyone - myself included - frets about this. The problem with those questions is that they are impossible to answer. We have no business deciding what others will care about. And ‘good enough’? Unless you define a more specific metric than that, you will suffer at the ever-shifting goalpost. We must let go of the idea that our writing should emerge in perfect form, with no need for revision. Even the most seasoned writers revise. With ‘perfection’ off the table, we can relax and allow more space for authenticity instead.
Since we can’t answer those questions of whether it’s good enough or will anyone care, I suggest we do what we can: sit down - or stand - and do the writing. And prompts are the simple ally that allows us to power past our fears and get our words out. Before we go there, let me introduce myself and how my passion for writing prompts has allowed me to be the writer I’d always wanted to be.
Free-writing is your pass to authentic writing
My writing life began in 1994 in a class called Writing the Wild Woman. Together, we wrote, then howled, and wrote some more. It was fun and set the course for me to enjoy the process of writing rather than fret about my merit as a writer. I learned how to use free-writing to generate all kinds of stories and ideas. In those safe containers, I found that I had to write because everyone around me was writing.
I trained myself in the art of both giving a f*ck - writing what I cared about - and not giving a f*ck - writing without censoring or editing myself on the first pass. I committed to five years of what I came to call my writing apprenticeship, which enhanced my work as a coach and also trained me in patience.
Free-writing is the fast pass to that flow state we all crave. It also helps us tap into our unconscious. In this flow state, our active, critical mind chills. This reduces our self-consciousness and quiets the inner critic.
Instead, we open to spaciousness where we can access new perspectives, memories, and our inherent creativity. Students in my classes are amazed by the memories and ideas that surface when they free-write. Free-writing is a simple writing technique that gives us access to a full range of ourselves, not just the critical mind.
I swear by free-writing for all kinds of writing. My writing community and I use it for:
- non-fiction books
- short stories
- course curricula
- personal journaling
- marketing copy
- and everything else.
What if free-writing just produces a bunch of unintelligible, messy writing? This process certainly can feel chaotic and wasteful. We want our precious time to be productive. But anyone who has mastered a skill knows that a lot of practice goes into developing expertise. I assert that if we cannot get to the page, let our words out in an honest way, we can never develop our writing.
Anyone can dump words onto the page. Of course, the pages of free-writing that we generate will need editing. It’s in the revision process where we learn the craft of writing. What to add, what to leave out. Which words to choose to make our sentences sing. That’s where you want to bring the editor or critical eye. But you’re bringing a sense of craft to words that have feeling and depth, not starting by limiting or censoring yourself.
Almost thirty years since that Wild Woman writing class taught me how to access my voice and flow, I have written and published eight books, 20 years of my newsletter, Impulses, and countless other written materials for my business and personal life.
A pivotal piece to free-writing is the prompt. A prompt helps us capture that ever-elusive focus required to write. A prompt offers a simple nudge, a gentle encouragement that forces you to stop wringing your hands on the sideline and dive into the pool of your words. A prompt also can spark new ideas or insights that you haven’t yet accessed. This can help you get your writing to a deeper level.
What is a writing prompt?
Okay, so what is a prompt? Writing prompts don’t need to be complicated. They are simply a way to get yourself past the blank page and into your writing. A prompt can be a:
- phrase - scraps of poems, prayers, lyrics, a passage from a book
- photo or a sketch
- a powerful question
- video clip.
A prompt of any kind is simply a mechanism to erase the blank page and get you started writing. Some people don’t like prompts at all. That’s fine; I don’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach to work always, for everyone. If you are the person who can jump into the writing without a starting point, hooray for you!
The 30-day challenge like in The Devoted Writer can work as well to hold you accountable every day so you can gain traction with your free-write muscle.
Let’s take a look at how prompts can be used for different kinds of writing.
Writing prompts for various purposes
Writing prompts give us a simple way to get started writing whatever you want. But you want to use the right prompt for the kind of writing you wish to produce.
- Personal Growth
Prompts for practice
Often, new writers don’t realize how much practice goes into writing well. They get frustrated at their lack of skill and give up too early. In many cases, our inner critic wins out, and we stop writing.
Using writing prompts can be an effective way to get in the practice required to write authentically.
Prompts for practice have no agenda other than to get you started writing. The prompts can be random, a word or phrase, an image or sound that invites you to dive in and explore what your pen reveals. Writing with prompts in free writing also means you can let go of editing as you go. No worries about punctuation and proper grammar at this point. Getting it right does not matter as much as allowing the flow to happen. This is where you will access your natural voice and rhythm.
These are the kind of prompts I use in The Devoted Writer, my online writing workshop where students write daily to develop a sustainable writing practice. The prompts are open-ended but specific. Students love them and remark on how they lead to surprises, insights, and new ideas for both writing and life. Examples of my daily writing prompts include:
- on the beach
- she never knew
- tiny lives
Sometimes, a student sees a prompt and their inner critic poo-poos it. I can tell you that overthinking is a straight path to writer’s block or uninspired writing. While these types of prompts are mainly to give you writing practice, they often lead to fresh and surprising writing that seems to come from thin air. This happens when we get out of our way and let our original, true self have a say. Even when the writing needs editing, it will be much fresher and less self-conscious and performative.
Find spontaneity using your prompts
My students love the daily email which surprises them and helps them bypass the inner critic. They are often blown away by the creative and fresh ideas that emerge from a seemingly random - and often stupid - prompt. You can spark a sense of randomness on your own. Try the following:
- Use a line from a poem.
- Open a book or dictionary at random and choose a word or line.
- Pull a phrase or word from the news.
- Look around you and choose a random object.
- Switch point of view - write in the third person, she, he, they, second person, you.
These random prompts can help you get out whatever needs to be expressed. Most of us have to do some clearing of thoughts and feelings before we can get to what we want to write. This is why I recommend a consistent journaling practice.
You can also use these for your creative writing projects. Novels, short stories, and poems can benefit from the surprises that arise when you write from random prompts. Prompts disrupt our usual mode of thinking to reveal the breadth and depth of our imagination.
Project-based writing prompts
Perhaps you want to write a book, or a speech, or a curriculum for a course. Or a proposal or artist’s statement. Your novel, memoir, video scripts, podcast monologues, class curriculum, articles, blogs, letters, etc...it has got to come out of you. But at times can seem so evasive!
Chances are that somewhere along the way you got stuck in a painful relationship with that perfectionism. You earnestly want to get it right. You want it to be good. But the high expectations keep you from writing a single word.
You also might have trouble focusing. Imagine your prompts as the writing container you’ve craved.
Using prompts based on your project, you can free-write a shaggy first draft of your material. It won’t be perfect. It won’t be in order. It will be messy, and it will need revision - a lot of it. But that’s okay. Having written material that you can work with is better than having nothing but a bad case of writer’s block. The people I have coached who try to get it right on the first pass, who wordsmith everything as it emerges, trying to get it ‘right,’ they suffer greatly and needlessly.
Often, I see people complicate the idea of prompts for their projects. Prompts for a project should simply be based on your topic. Just exchange the word ‘prompt’ for ‘topic.’ Choose at random or start from the beginning and go linearly.
Below I will go into more detail about how to use prompts for your writing projects. For now, let’s look at another type of prompt.
When working on a project, we play both roles of the writer and the project manager. Writing a book or a large body of work is a massive undertaking. We have a complicated relationship with our project. Sometimes it’s a love/hate push/pull. The right process prompts can help release emotional clutter and gain clarity. Then, forward momentum is easier to attain.
Prompts can help you reflect on your project work. I recommend keeping an author notebook alongside your project work. In the journal, you can track your process. You can create mindmaps and outlines to further open your mind to the possibilities.
When you get stuck or overwhelmed, you can free-write about your experience to get grounded. My clients have life-changing breakthroughs when they use process prompts.
At the beginning of my coaching group sessions, I guide us through a short free-write to get settled, grounded, and focused. I offer a process prompt, set a timer for 8 minutes, and we all write. Afterward, we read over our notes and highlight the critical or illuminating bits. This helps them connect to what’s happening with their project and how they feel about it. We use the highlighted passes as our check-in.
Prompts like this include:
- my book and I
- my book/project wants/needs
- I’m sure/doubtful that
- what I need now for this project.
It’s always astonishing how much insight we can generate for our creative projects using this kind of prompt. Use mine here or generate your own process prompts.
Prompts for Personal Growth
Sometimes we need a nudge to get into even our journaling. Recently, I used a series of 35 inquiries to write daily. I developed a series of questions that I wished a therapist or coach to ask me. I wanted to get to the essence of myself. I craved insights and clarity about myself and my next projects. My list included powerful inquiries I ask my clients such as:
- What are you afraid of?
- What would be fun?
- What are you a stand for?
- What does your artist want?
- What do you need now?
- Becoming an activist
These prompts helped me get to know myself better, and the series resolved some issues I had been clinging to for too long.
Those are just a few types of prompts; I am sure there are many more. I’m not a fan of the scenario prompt. These set you up to get stuck in your head, precisely what a prompt is trying to avoid. A scenario prompt is something like: Imagine a time when you were embarrassed in front of others. First, I have to scroll through the past. If I find something, I have already built up ideas about what I will or won’t share. The writing from these kinds of prompts can feel stiff and contrived.
As I mentioned, one size does not fit all. You might dislike certain kinds of prompts. I suggest trying various types of prompts before letting your inner critic shut down possibility. If you're like me, you almost always say no to new things before saying yes. I'm not proud of this, but I know that the no-sayer in me is simply trying to protect me and maintain the status quo. In my writing, I don't need protection, I need honesty. I don't want the status quo, I want innovation and insight.
Let’s look more closely at how to use writing prompts to write a book or a large project.
Using visual prompts for writing
In The Devoted Writer, I base my written prompts on photos. Each prompt is accompanied by a picture as well as one of my Writual Blessings.
You may use visual elements for your writing prompts. Your photographs, drawings, or objects can be used as prompts.
Try this for yourself. Sort through your paper or digital photos. Gather ones that seem to tell a story or that spark something in you. Don’t think about it; just pull together the ones that pique your interest. Without thinking, make up a prompt for each photo. Just the first thing that comes to your head. Don’t censor; it’s not the prompt itself is so good, it’s what you allow yourself to do with it. You can write from the image or the words.
You can also play with sketching or drawing to spark your writing.
Scan your current environment and make a list now of prompts based on your surroundings. At the park, rolling dog, thunder, they huddled, freshly-cut grass...those are the prompts that I extract from my environment.
Ways to use prompts
I’ll discuss a few ways prompts can be used; these have been tested and proven repeatedly by my writing workshop students and coaching clients.
Choose at random for an element of surprise. Members of my Devoted Writer online writing course love the daily writing prompts in their inbox. The element of surprise is like a daily gift. Then, their writing often surprises them. This sense of wonder can keep the writing fresh and not over-thought.
You can make a list of prompts and print them up. Cut them into individual prompts and put them in a bowl or box. Choose at random and write without thinking.
Some people want more of a sense of control and order. They go in order, ticking them off the list. They write linearly. Great! Whatever works for you is what works.
Find a way to delineate the prompts that you have used. Either cross them off the list, make them bold or colored, or delete. Personally, the satisfaction of seeing the list get smaller would motivate me to remove them.
Corkboard indexing works particularly well if you are writing a book or other substantial body of work. Put each prompt on an index card or sticky note. Stick the cards on a corkboard or wall. Write from them at random, taking the prompts off or turning them over when you are finished with them. Here’s a more in-depth look at how to use index cards and a corkboard to organize your topics.
Writing prompts can be simple. Don’t overthink them. The best part of free-writing is the surprise that emerges when you step aside and let your pen or keyboard lead the way. Writing prompts can help you dive in and swim past the inner critic to write anything, anytime.
Simply set the timer for 8 to 20 minutes and go!
Generate writing prompts for your book
One of the assumptions people make when writing a book is thinking that the first draft will be the last. But everyone I’ve known who has finished a book has gone through more than one draft. Sometimes many more.
We don’t always have a clear idea of what will be included. Sometimes the content or structure of the book shifts. Often we have to write our way through it, rather than to think our way through it ahead of time. A lot goes into writing a book. I’ve shared what I know from writing my books and helping others write theirs here.
Brainstorm your prompts
Use the mind mapping method to get your ideas out easily and quickly. And, you can also just list ideas in a document or notebook. Don't worry about being orderly or tidy here; you will corral them into a usable form in the next step. Spark your own prompts from:
- things you say repeatedly and want to capture in writing
- memories that keep surfacing
- plot ideas for existing stories
- stories and concepts for personal essays
- any idea or thing that grabs your interest.
If you have a project underway, I challenge you to create a list of 30 topics that you can use to springboard into the writing. You can do this on paper or a digital file.
When you have generated your mind map of topics and created a rough book outline, you can use those words or phrases as your prompts. Remember your reader. Imagine talking to her/him/them. Imagine speaking to a group of people who will love your book if that is easier for you.
Look at your prompt. Consider your reader/audience. What must they know about this? Use free-writing to dump out your ideas. With a series of 10, 15, and 20-minute writing sessions, you will be able to clear your mind of all the things related to this topic. Don’t worry about having it in any organized fashion. The purpose now is simply to get your ideas out of your unconscious mind and onto the page. Later, you will edit and make the words clear and useful.
Go through and highlight or underline the ideas. Then, make a list of these topics. You can put them into a mindmap first if that helps you to organize them in categories.
If it helps you to break your topics down further, that is easy enough. For each prompt, make a bullet list of several points you want to make for that idea. What must they know?
You can do this as a detailed outline, or you can put prompts on index cards. The topic is on one side, and the list is on the other side of the card. Print the list or write each prompt on an index card.
If you write the prompts on cards, put the cards in a basket, bowl, or box. At the beginning of each writing session, draw a card at random. This will keep the writing fresh and prevent your freewriting from being hampered by pre-writing in your head.
Write from each prompt until you’ve exhausted your ideas. This may take several writing sessions before you feel complete with each topic.
Your inner critic will want to stop your writing in these ways
Remember that writing from these prompts is merely drafting or capturing your ideas. The writing will be rough, messy, and unorganized. It will feel incomplete and perhaps incoherent.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of prompts. Your inner critic won’t believe that good writing and profound insights can come from even the most banal prompt. But I’ve seen it happen again and again in my 24 years of working with writers.
Don’t fret! This writing will also be raw, real, and fresh. It will have your voice and your conviction on it. It will be material to revise, edit, and sculpt into something you can share with the world. But don’t get ahead of yourself with wordsmithing and perfectionism, either in developing your prompts or free-writing from them.
Lastly, don’t spend too much time brainstorming and organizing your prompts. Overplanning can hinder your writing and can even cause you to procrastinate the entire process. You’ll spend so much time thinking, organizing, and planning that you lose interest in actually writing. Give yourself enough prompts to get started and then dive into the pleasure of writing.
Join me to write
I share the full process on how to organize yourself to write your book in The Busy Woman’s Guide to Writing a World-Changing Book. Taking action from this introduction to using prompts in free writing can allow you to begin to write in ways you may have only hoped for previously. A prompt can be a great way to dive in without censure or overthinking. You’ll have access to your fresh voice and ideas that have been waiting for you to bring them to life.
This should give you a sense of what writing prompts can do for you and your writing. I invite you to try a few prompts I have shared here. Suspend your cynicism or doubt long enough to give it a go. Set a timer for 10 minutes, grab a prompt, and see what emerges.
For a supported experience writing from prompts, consider joining us in The Devoted Writer.