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What’s Your Favorite Writing Prompt or Exercise?


PUBLISHED: July 23, 2012
Balloon via Flickr and Haeckel Ascidiae via Wikimedia Commons

While catching up on New Yorkers this weekend, I ran across a delightful piece by Rebecca Mead, “Earnest.” (Read it online.) It’s about Jeff Nunokawa, who writes one Facebook note per day. Mead writes:

Nunokawa typically takes a literary quotation—Edmund Spenser, James Merrill, Joni Mitchell—and elaborates upon it, sometimes for a line, sometimes for a paragraph or two. Nunokawa’s notes are meditations: half literary-critical, half confessional. He writes one a day. “I write as soon as I wake up, because that is when I am most alert and most anguished,” he said. “Each one takes between twenty minutes and four hours to write. It’s almost like a Lacanian session. [Read more.]

Which got me to thinking … Do you have a favorite writing prompt or exercise that you rely on for inspiration or guidance?

From now through Sunday (July 29), we’d like to hear about your favorite prompts/exercises in the comments. (Be sure to indicate the source of the prompt/exercise, if appropriate.) On Monday, we’ll randomly select one commenter to receive a free selection of journals from Miro, in a nifty canvas tote. We’ll also collect and post the best prompts from what’s shared.

Image: Balloon via Flickr and Haeckel Ascidiae via Wikimedia Commons

70 Comments

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Jo M. Coleman's picture
My favorite writing prompt is taking one of my favorite pens and a notepad, and writing down whatever I feel at the moment. Sometimes a scene, or actually describing my emotions, a description of what I see/hear/touch etc. Definitely gets the creative juices flowing so I can focus on brainstorming for the actual book I am currently writing. :-)
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jeff whatshisname's picture
jeff whatshisname · 6 years ago
My favourite writing prompts come from strangers. I will set up a typewriter (yes, the real, mechanical kind) and write “30-second stories.” People will come yp and I ask them for a name and a place, or an object and a situation or activity and write a short story based on what they give me. It only takes a few moments. I hand the story to the person and write down the basics of the best ideas. Those ideas can become longer pieces. I love doing this for an hour or more. It keeps me sharp and the people I interact with get a story and see a typewriter in action. I also get instant feedback on ly ideas, which doesn’t suck.
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AV Johnson's picture
My prompt is my sleepy subconscious. I write as early as I can possibly wake and before my conscious thoughts get in the way. It’s astonishing to me what I create during my first cup of coffee and before the rest of the house wakes up.
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Martin A. Egan's picture
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” ― William Faulkner I write every day. Whether its nonsense or formed structured work is irrelevant. Writing the morning thoughts out of the way clears my head for more cohesive writing. For me Inspiration arrives promptly at 3.00am every morning and leaves at 8.00am most days. I used to lie in bed cursing the fact that I couldn’t sleep. Then one am well over 20 years ago I had enough, I got up and wrote and its been that way ever since. Be Well Martin A. Egan
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Tonya Assid's picture
I have a list of adjectives from A to Z. I pick one at random, look it up and use the definition to write a quick story of around 2000 words. I require myself to use the adjective several times throughout the writing. I also use the synonyms to give myself variety and learn other words that mean the same. And if the definition gives me noun, adverb, verb then I have to use the adjectives in those forms as well. I’ve learned a lot of new words doing this and better uses of old stand-bys.
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Donna's picture
I like to keep it simple. “I remember…” or “I see…” always get my juices going. Also “I want to write about…” is good.
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Peter Steven's picture
My favourite writing prompt is a piece of good writing from an author I respect. At the moment I’m working to convert one of my non-fiction books (on the media) to a graphic version –either online or in paper. So, reading a few pages from Paul Buhle’s “Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World,” or Franke James’ “Bothered By My Green Conscience” really gets the ideas percolating.
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Jane Ciabattari's picture
Jane Ciabattari · 6 years ago
I take a walk and pick up an object–a leaf of basil, a book, a handbill, a toy, a trinket, a blossom, a radish, a cactus plant, a candy wrapper, a newspaper, a pine cone that appears to be wrapped in green cloth it is so smooth, an orange cherry tomato, a frozen yogurt stick–and write about it, weaving it into a scene, with sensual details. I use this in teaching writing students, as well, grabbing objects to bring in a bag to class (a box of mac ‘n cheese brought out fascinating stories from several students).
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Jill Anderson's picture
Jill Anderson · 6 years ago
I like to start by writing about a place, usually some kind of built environment, that I have fond memories of. Describing what I remember about the place overlaps with the story (or stories) of myself and others in that place, and helps lead me into more focused writing.
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AJ Sikes's picture
AJ Sikes · 6 years ago
I like putting my characters into situations that are 100% outside of my novel. So my protag might end up on the set of I Love Lucy or another 1950s-era sitcom. Doing this forces me to consider avenues of character exploration that I couldn’t otherwise get into because I’m so inside my novel world.
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Rhonda Purtee's picture
Rhonda Purtee · 6 years ago
“And so…” allows me the freedom to move the characters/situation or myself to the next place. Frequently, from the unfolding of a response, I discover what came before, kind of like working a maze backwards. I’ll use it with no existing character or story in mind also, as a way of getting just getting words on the page. My version of priming the pump.
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Susmita Paul's picture
A phrase or an arbitrary set of 3 to 4 words that I come across in books, films, road signs, advertisements is the most frequent writing prompt for me. The phrase or the set of 3 to 4 words creates a kind of chain reaction of images and words in my mind. I need to scribble them somewhere or it is lost. This becomes the essence of a piece that I write during my writing time. By the way, thank you for introducing Jeff Nunokawa and Rebecca Mead’s writings.
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Carl Rollyson's picture
My favorite prompt is usually a note to myself that I leave after I’ve written the last paragraph of the book I’m working on and am ready to call it a day. In other words, I always leave something unfinished, something to meditate on for the rest of the day and night.
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Darrelyn Saloom's picture
Photographs often inspire me to write. Music will bring on a certain mood that I need . And reading poetry. Those are the three things that prompt me onto the page when I need a shot of creative caffeine.
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Kate Gould's picture
My favourite writing prompt is taken from The Pocketbook of Prompts: 52 Ideas for a Story. “Choose two historical figures and send them on a blind date. Write it from three perspectives: each of the figures and someone watching the date.”
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Miriam Austin's picture
Miriam Austin · 6 years ago
I have an “inspiration” folder on my computer where I keep a collection of photographs that have caught my eye, either when surfing on the web or photos I have taken myself. Whenever I am looking for a new idea, I go to that folder and randomly choose a photo to spark my imagination!
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Renee Carter Hall's picture
Starting out with a random line of dialogue, from whatever source, often works well for me. Once I can get characters talking, things will keep moving from there. I’ve also used random dictionary words and, if I really can’t get anything to happen, I’ve tried reading poetry collections and just making lists of words and phrases that appeal to me, and seeing what that mixture inspires. In general, though, I find that for me, the simplest and most wide-open types of prompts tend to work best.
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Michelle Brinson's picture
I use Evernote to jot down ideas digitally all day, all the time. Then, when I’m ready to spend some time writing, I sit down, look through my newest notes and when I read over something I’ve marked that strikes me… I see that as inspiration for my next writing topic.
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Adriana Ryan's picture
My favorite writing prompts have come from looking at art photography. It’s amazing the stories your mind will conjure up based on the talent and creative output of another. Browse through Flickr for some enlightening writing!
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Angela Foster's picture
My favorite writing prompt is to set my timer for 5 minutes and write about whatever I have on my mind. When the timer rings, I stop and begin a sentence with these words: “What I really want to say is… .” This stops the rambling and brings me to the heart of the story, where a writer really needs to be.
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Holly Robinson's picture
I’m always looking for novel ways (yes, pun intended!) to spark a deeper or more interesting point of view, so I’ll often take a page from a book I’m reading or writing and completely alter the point of view–first person to third person limited, for instance, or from the daughter’s point of view to the mother’s, just to see where the characters will take me.
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Raven McMillian's picture
Graffiti scribble the first haiku that comes to mind on an index card, even if it makes no sense to me, then write about what it means (or give it meaning) for 20 minutes. Might be good for nothing but usually can be drawn into some other work in one way or another.
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Catherine Campbell's picture
Catherine Campbell · 6 years ago
I start every story pretending I’m sitting on a bar stool. In my head, I turn to the person sitting next to me and I say, “Did I told you the story about…?” And fill in the rest. It’s a psychological thing that works for me. Because if the story isn’t entertaining enough to tell at a bar full of strangers, there’s no sense in writing it.
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Stephanie's picture
My favorite is to be in a cafe and eavesdrop, and use the most interesting bits to begin. Real dialogue is a great starting point, for me, because it gives you a bit of information about each person and also reveals something about the situation.
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Matt's picture
Matt · 6 years ago
My favorite prompt is have two people talking in a bar. Anywhere in the bar, and any kind of bar. One of the characters usually says something very interesting and it turns out to be its own story. It combines two great things for writing: writing and eavesdropping. I never let myself know where the conversation is going and I use as little description as possible. It only takes a couple pages and can be a great exercise in dialogue.
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Teresa's picture
I don’t have specific sources that I use fro writing prompts. Often times, because I write SF, things I read in Scientific American or other science articles will spark my imagination. When I write children’s lit, I’ll look to my kids and their friends for inspiration. :)
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Aine Greaney's picture
My favorite prompt is to start with, “I want to write about …” that usually gets me going off into the essence of what I would really like to get down. Sometimes I use this prompt as a way to re-focus and re-send the piece-in-progress to a deeper, more authentic place.
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Carolyn's picture
My favorite exercise to help me write is…. exercise. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve figured out the solution to a problem in my manuscript during yoga at ACAC in Charlottesville. Yoga focuses my mind and clears away the clutter of daily annoyances. I’m not thinking about what to fix for dinner or how my son is doing in college during yoga. My mind is free and enlightenment descends on me during final savasana.
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Elizabeth's picture
Elizabeth · 6 years ago
Anything recommended by John Gardner in his important book, The Art of Fiction. He has a list of exercises. One of the shorter examples: 4c. Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.
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lillian's picture
lillian · 6 years ago
Over the past year, I’ve found that the best writing prompt for me is to start writing about my narrator character as if I’m talking to someone about her, as in, “Gee likes…” or “Gee thinks…” or “Gee hates…” but, as I keep writing, I find that I’ve shifted in my character’s voice and my writing has become her dialogue or a scene that I can use for the novel. I’ve used this prompt/technique in quiet, writerly-like spaces, as well as in a busy high school cafeteria and it helped me get to where I needed to be in my story.
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