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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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Margaret Jean's picture
My favorite writing exercise is to just start writing. Flow of consciousness I think we used to call it in the 1970’s. If you are block, free flow writing will unblock you because you aren’t trying to do anything except write. You can write your thoughts or feelings either about your current writing project or your life in general–usually everything comes out. Sort of the hard copy version of verbal diarrhea.
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Jayne Roberts's picture
Jayne Roberts · 7 years ago
Honestly? It’s tucking my three children into bed at night then getting down to writing - if I write well enough I might not have to go back to work teaching and be able to stay at home with them- nothing more promting.
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Mieke Zamora-Mackay's picture
I set aside 15 minutes during my lunch hour each workday to “freewrite” in longhand from either a picture or word prompt. I call this period my “Daily 15.” The output can either be added to a current WIP, or an entirely new idea altogether.
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Sarah's picture
Sarah · 7 years ago
My favorite writing prompt is sitting on the patio watching the sunrise with an open journal in my lap and a pen in hand. Listening to the birds as the sun crests the trees clears my mind and guides my focus.
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Shivers Q. Einstein's picture
Shivers Q. Einstein · 7 years ago
Writing on a song and why it matters to you, or mattered to you can prompt weird sense memories and forgotten details. The first pop or rock song that appealed to you as a child, the missing pieces of adult experience to be filled in later. Listening to the songs that “changed my life” when I was thirteen can be thrilling to the point of synesthesia with notes, or really anticlimactic and empty, giving me the (possibly misguided) cool feeling I might be 1/3 less dumb. It is low pressure and takes you on flights of imagination and otherness which end up leading to either staring into space or, preferably, writing into it, and getting at something you might have otherwise missed.
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Maggie's picture
Maggie · 7 years ago
My favorite writing prompt is to type–from memory–some of my favorite quotes. Remembering how the author said it usually primes my own creative pump. There’s nothing better than typing felicitous words to prompt you to start filling your own blank page.
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Mary Purvis's picture
Mary Purvis · 7 years ago
A quick drive around town. For whatever reason the dull state of my mind in traffic prompts some great ideas for my book, which I jot down on sticky notes at a stoplight. It’s then quite exciting to return home with my pile of notes to write.
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Charles Kabala's picture
I came across the book, Crafting the Personal Essay, by Dinty W. Moore, when I started a (just because I can) blog. With chapters on such things as metaphors, pursuing rabbits, and conflict, I’ve found the exercises well suited to exploring my mind to see what’s in there. Highly recommended.
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Robin Patchen's picture
What gets my creative juices going? Listening to a bible study, sermon, or other well-written speech. There’s something about hearing someone else expound on a subject that gets my brain into action, especially if there’s something I disagree with. Not terribly helpful in my fiction writing, but it’s a great prompt for blog posts.
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Drunk With Ink's picture
Drunk With Ink · 7 years ago
I have a circle of photographers and visual artists on Google+ and what I do is open that circle and start writing about the newest image posted, a free flowing, free wheeling bit of prose. If that doesn’t get the juices flowing I go on to the next, etc.
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Genevieve DeGuzman's picture
For a dose of inspiration, I turn to my favorite authors and read a brilliant passage. That usually revs me up and challenges me to tackle the blank screen or page. There’s nothing like reading compelling prose to motivate me to write. Another great way to clear the cobwebs – going out for a long walk or run. I let my mind wander and I return to my desk refreshed and calmer, and my mind flush with ideas.
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Alec Breton's picture
Alec Breton · 7 years ago
A favorite prompt is to think of a situation confronting a character, but for which I don’t yet have a “solution.” Then I turn on a recording device and use a fake accent to mimic the voice and attitude I imagine the character would employ. The pressure from having to extemporaneously improvise what the character could say sparks new thoughts. Often there are surprises which are dredged out of my subconscious mind. However, sometimes the character breaks out into a song I never heard before. This can be a bit freaky.
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Sallie Wolf's picture
From Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, I practice writing “morning pages” in my journals. What really helps me get going is that I have a heading I use to begin each day. I Number the day for how many days I’ve written in a given week, write the day, date, location where I am, time, and weather, using no abbreviations. By the time I complete that opening I have written almost 2 lines, depending on the size of my journal and the state the weather. My pen is moving and I keep going. Then if I run out of ideas or am boring myself, I’ll begin a new paragraph with the prompt, “Issues?” to see if I am avoiding some aspect of my life. This often leads me to reflect on my lack of creative production and that segues into actually writing on the project at hand.
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Shannon's picture
Shannon · 7 years ago
My favorite writing exercise is to grab my notebook and pen, set a timer for 20 minutes and write anything and everything that comes into my head. I’m not allowed to stop, edit or critique. It’s all about getting words down on the page.
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Corinne Litchfield's picture
In my current writing group we do writing prompts & exercises together to get the juices flowing. I’m fond of the Found Objects exercise, where each person blindly pulls an item out of a bag, writes about it for 5-7 minutes, then picks another item, another 5-7 minutes of writing, then a final item is picked. For another exercise on character development I brought in four Barbie dolls, all dressed differently and with “props” (a miniature book, a letter, a guitar, a missing shoe), and we each picked a doll to write about. Lots of fun.
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Caleb J. Ross's picture
A writing prompt I use often (and teach to others at every opportunity) is to take two dissimilar ideas and force them into a story together. The prompt can go even further to specify where the dissimilar ideas have to come from. For example, flip through a newstand magazine and randomly pull out two photographs. Now, FORCE those two items (pictured in the photograph) into a story. Let the inherent tension work in your story’s favor.
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Mahala's picture
My favorite prompt does not rise to the lofty ones listed above. It works for all ages and stages of writers and pulls me out of a slump when deciding what to say next with characters, plot, settings, etc. If I had a magic wand, I would…
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Nicole's picture
Nicole · 7 years ago
Open the phone book, pick two names at random and create characters around them. Imagine not just their looks, but fears, loves, tics… And then when that’s done write about the day they meet.
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Lindsey's picture
Lindsey · 7 years ago
I love doing writing prompts, but I think my favorite exercise is doing
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Lindsey's picture
Lindsey · 7 years ago
I love doing writing prompts, but I think my favorite exercise is doing the Morning Pages from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It really lets my mind wander on paper and I have come up with great solutions for my writing as well as my life while doing them.
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Rebecca's picture
I take notebooks everywhere with me: to work, to the beach, to the mall. I never know when an idea or inspiration for a scene or character will fly into my head, and I need to get it down, NOW! This surprises me, and most people who know me, for I am a technophile, having all the latest gadgets for capturing and manipulating data, but for my writing ‘research’ and character /plot develoment - nothing compares to having a notebook, paper and pen at the ready when my muse pops in and says, “See that creepy guy sitting there on the bench outside of Victoria’s Secret? Yeah, well that’s your character, Jim…”
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Jose's picture
Jose · 7 years ago
I try to read at least an hour a day, and it really gets my creative side going if I start writing as soon as I’ve done my reading.
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Mary Incontro's picture
I love Rex Pickett’s writing advice on Twitter. This is one of my favorites that always kicks me into action: “Writing for me was the taking of everything that was the worst of me & trying to transmutate it into art so that I could live with myself.”
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Rachel Kovacs's picture
I read the news. The news is full of stories of people, crisis, and fascinating places that can prompt entire story lines. A picture can inspire a poem. An article about an accident can inspire a short story about a conspiracy against a government agent. While I am cautious about “stealing” stories from real life, I let real life inspire me.
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brianne's picture
brianne · 7 years ago
Opening a book to a random page, picking a random sentence, then using it to start a story. Or making a story that leads up to and ends with that sentence.
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Mindy Kinnaman's picture
Mindy Kinnaman · 7 years ago
Years ago, a teacher suggested that we sit somewhere public and people watch, writing about what we see. As I sat there, I began to think about who the people were and what they were doing, which led to my favourite exercise. When I’m stuck for ideas or just wanting to hone my skills, I pick a person around me and develop their character. I write their backstory and what brought them to where we are, ending with where they go next.
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Ellen Elder's picture
Ellen Elder · 7 years ago
My favorite prompt is a TREASURE HUNT POEM that came from a fellow PhD student in creative writing at Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who heard it from her professor, Bill Harrold. (I pasted the prompt below). My favorite aspect of this exercise is the sheer JOY and AWAKENING the students (I only used it for undergrads) experienced when writing the poem. Poetry Prompt: Treasure Hunt Poem Go to the library. Wait until you see someone wearing a blue shirt headed towards a bookshelf in the stacks. Follow that person surreptitiously. Take out the book directly to the left of the book the person takes out, or closest to the point that you think they’re going to take out a book. Open the book at random and choose three words off a page. Photocopy that page, and circle the three words. Go to the poetry section (roughly PR-PS on the 3rd floor here at UWM). Find a poet whose last name begins with your first initial plus three (ex. E + 3 = H) and is of the opposite sex as you. Turn to the final poem in the book. Read and photocopy the poem. The subject matter or theme of this poem will determine the subject matter or theme of your poem. Go to the art section. Find a visual artist whose last name begins with the same letter as your last name. Open the book at random to a drawing, painting, or photograph. Make a photocopy. The title of the artwork will be the title of your poem. You will look at the art while you write. Now, study all your materials one more time. Prop the artwork up in front of you. On the top of your blank page write the title of the artwork (title of your poem), and the three words you must incorporate. Reread the poem determining your subject matter. Now, write in white heat for twenty minutes. After your time is up, close your notebook and do something else. Come back to your writing at a later time and work it into a poem. Give yourself at least 20 minutes, no more than an hour, although this depends on your editing process. Turn in your photocopied materials with your final poem. *You may turn this into an artistic collage (via cutting & pasting, using poster board and glue, etc.) or leave it black and white, as you see fit. Don’t forget to include your title! Also, be prepared to discuss your artistic process next week when you present your poem to the class.
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Gabriela Pereira's picture
My go-to writing technique involves getting my backside in the chair and keeping it there long enough for me to get engrossed in the project at hand. Here’s how it works: I set aside an hour and roll a die, then multiply whatever number I roll by 10. That’s how many minutes I must sit with my backside in the chair and I must write something, but as soon as I put in my allotted time, I can go do something else. This technique tricks me into starting, and usually even if I only rolled a 1, by the end of just ten minutes I’m so engrossed in my writing that I keep working anyway to the end of the hour. Sometimes I work even longer than that. Rolling the die makes it into a sort of game, like there’s a chance I could just roll a 10 minutes and be done with it. The die also takes the work of deciding how long to work out of my hands. After all, if chance dictates that I should write 10 minutes, then it’s not me being a slacker, it’s a decree from the Fates themselves.
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Ellen Elder's picture
Ellen Elder · 7 years ago
My previous post was a prompt I use in teaching, but what works best for my own writing (either poetry or fiction) is the “THINGS PEOPLE HAVE TOLD ME” prompt. Write down ten things folks have told you or that you’ve overhead folks say that have impacted you, such as “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me” or “My father used to make us __” or “I think she’s an alcoholic” or “They used to hide gold in the baby’s diaper” or “She used to dream in German” … Choose one and either have your character say it, or have it said to them. It’s great for character development and writing dialogue.
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