If you’ve hung around Writers Helping Writers for very long, today’s guest author doesn’t need an introduction. Gabriela Pereira is a former Resident Writing Coach who keeps coming back to share helpful information. Today, she’s talking about writing prompts and how they can accelerate your writing.
Some writers love doing exercises and prompts. Others don’t like the pressure of needing to “write on demand.” I happen to love writing exercises and firmly believe that when you weave a healthy dose into your regular writing workout, your mastery of the craft can grow by leaps and bounds. Whether you are a fan of writing exercises (like me!) or you’d rather tap dance on an alligator’s nose, here are a few good reasons—four, in fact—for why you might want to give writing prompts a try.
1) Lower stakes mean higher output and more confidence.
When you work on a project you care about—something meaningful, like a novel or other book-in-progress—the stakes are automatically going to be fairly high. No matter how hard you may try to convince yourself that this is only a messy first draft, there’s that little voice in the back of your mind that insists this project is important.
All this mental baggage can put a damper on your output. Of course you want your writing to be of a quality worthy of this project, but the pressure can squash your momentum. A writing exercise, on the other hand, has far lower stakes and you are less likely to beat yourself up if the result is less-than perfect. Instead, the exercise or prompt can help you get your momentum going before you try to tackle a bigger, more hefty project.
These lower stakes can also give you a major confidence boost. When you do a writing exercise, naturally you won’t expect the writing to be perfect. This means that when you reread what you wrote later on, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover a handful of gems buried in the garble. Your writhing may not be quite as hopeless as you thought.
Writing prompts can help you learn to set those first-draft expectations extra-low. An added benefit to these lower stakes is that when your writing inevitably exceeds your rock-bottom expectations, it will give your confidence a boost.
2) The less attachment you have to the result, the better the chances of improving your skills.
I usually think of prompts and exercises as “throw-away” writing. They are something I do to warm up; I’m not writing “for real.” This automatically makes me feel less attached to whatever I am writing, and whatever I produce is not going to be as dear to my heart as all those “darlings” I must ruthlessly murder in my manuscript.
The more darling something is to you, the harder it will be to kill. And unfortunately, in most projects there will be at least one thing you absolutely love but must remove. Just because your book will be better for it doesn’t make “killing those darlings” any easier.
This is where writing exercises come in. They help desensitize you to the brutality of revision. After all, it’s far less painful to slash a red pen across a page you produced from a ten-minute exercise than it is to cut that perfect turn of phrase you agonized over for three hours. When you revise something with lower stakes, you become more open to making broad, sweeping changes and you develop a thicker skin for when revisions reallymatter.
3) You’re more willing to take creative risks.
Here’s a secret no one tells you: creativity has nothing to do with being a “creative person,” it’s all about practice. The muse may be a fickle beast, but she can be trained. (Mine is great at playing dead.) And if all else fails, do what a fellow author once told me—chain the muse to your desk.
A huge part of creativity is training your brain to think on the fly. The more you train your brain to put ideas together and follow where they lead, the better you will get at this type of thinking. Writing exercises are a great way to practice this skill, and since the stakes are so low, you are less likely to stifle your creativity along the way.
Prompts and exercises aren’t just about getting your creativity going; sometimes they can help you hold the reins. While many writers might use exercises to rev up their creativity, others (like me) will find that prompts are a great way to get the crazies out of your system. You can use writing exercises to try things that may seem completely out of place in your current project, and you don’t risk derailing your book in the process.
Prompts allow you to try ideas on for size or to let your characters do something that might seem wildly out-of-character. The exercise serves as a container, a safe space where you can experiment without worrying that you might break something in your book. Even if you don’t use everything you write, you may be able to extract some nugget of genius from the exercise and infuse that into your project.
4) You can safely hone your craft.
Up until now, we’ve focused on how exercises can help boost your creativity, but they can also play an important role in helping you hone your craft. If you are struggling with a particular writing technique, a great way to master that skill is to do a series of writing exercises focusing on that one problem.
For example, if your dialogue feels stilted or unnatural, choose a few different dialogue prompts and exercise that mental muscle until it begins to feel more limber. I often use characters and situations from my work-in-progress when I do writing exercises. The prompt serves as a low-pressure testing ground for practicing that technique, but if the result is good, I can always use certain snippets in my project.
I call this the Petri Dish Technique. This approach allows you to test and improve upon certain elements of your writing without destroying your book. Just like scientists use small samples in a Petri dish to test their hypotheses, so too can you refine elements of your craft in the contained space of a writing exercise. This way, you can test different possible solutions without killing the entire “organism” that is your book.
Many writers love to talk about their ideas for a scene or a story, but until those words are on the page in some form, it doesn’t really exist. You can’t edit an idea that’s in your brain; there has to be some raw material for you to work with, and for a writer, that means words on the page. Writing exercises help you get out of your own way so you can think on paper and produce that essential raw material.
Want to try your hand at some writing exercises in the New Year? The DIY MFA book club kicks off on Monday, January 21. Part read-along, part writing prompt challenge, you’ll receive thought questions and mini-assignments right in your inbox. Plus, you’ll be able to connect with fellow participants on social media. If you have a blog or want to build your platform while improving your craft, this challenge is a great way to do that.
Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a TEDx speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Sisay Asefa says
Hi their my name is Sisay Asefa, I’m a screenwriter. I finished my screenplay, so can you accept my screenplay? or best idea?
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Congrats on finishing your screenplay! We aren’t film agents, so you’ll have to look into that whole process of sunbitting. We recommend checking out Bang 2 Write – it’s an excellent site for screenwriters.
Kristin Bartley Lenz says
This is great! To rediscover the joy in writing after a tiring year of promoting my debut novel, I signed up for an online summer writing workshop. I had so much fun exploring and experimenting with the prompts. I had no publishing expectations and most of that writing will remain in my journal or computer, but it also led to a published poem and a new direction in my new novel-in-progress. Now I’m going to find your DIY MFA book – thank you!
Mathew Anderson says
Being a writer myself at Wowriters.co (https://wowriters.com/), I am firmly in favour of your thoughts that persistence pays off in writing.
Joy Pixley says
(Hm, I thought I commented on this earlier, so if this comes up a second time, that’s why….)
Hi Gabriela! This is a fun coincidence, because I’m reading your DIY MFA book (and loving it) and just this morning I was reading the chapter where you cover the same material as this post. Great stuff, in both formats!
I’ve always been awful at writing exercises, at least the ones they have in workshops. As soon as someone points to me and says “Write, NOW,” my brain totally freezes and I can’t put one sentence after another to save my life. However, in the past few years I have been totally converted to the ways of the photo writing prompt. I subscribe to several weekly online photo prompt challenges, and they have been so much fun to participate in. For one, I find it’s a great way to generate fresh ideas, whether for longer stories or to flesh out characters in my WIP, or for world-building my secondary world fantasy setting. For another thing, it’s great writing practice: when you only have 200 or 150 words — or 100! — you have to make every single word count! As a bonus, I post the flash fiction stories on my blog, so I already have a head start with the third part of the DIY MFA triangle: community building. It’s win-win-win!
Gabriela Pereira says
Hi Joy! I love your approach to using prompts, and I totally agree that prompts can be a great way to find new angles into a WIP. Also, I am so glad you’re enjoying the book. You should totally do the Book Club, because you’ll be able to apply the exercises to blog posts. Two birds with one stone, right? 🙂
Also, if you like photo prompts, you should check out the Writer Igniter app (WriterIgniter.com) It’s like a slot machine for writers.
Walter H says
I walk the line between professional writing and fanfiction writing; while fanfiction writers aren’t welcome everywhere, people forget that you actually get to practice your craft, which makes your professional writing better. That said, I always partake in prompt writing; there are online communities that are dedicated to it. And when I find something I’ve written in fanfiction that really resonates, I will try and work that same basic concept into my professional writing.
Gabriela Pereira says
Hi Walter—That’s so cool that you write fanfiction! I cut my teeth writing online RPGs and fanfiction and it was such a great way to learn the craft. Writing fanfiction takes the pressure off in terms of the characters and world building (since those elements are already established) so we can turn our focus to scene-related elements like bringing our characters to life or working on dialogue and description.
And what you said about taking fanfiction and making it into something original totally rings true. In fact, 50 Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction before E.L. James changed it to the current incarnation. (It’s not my favorite thing to read per se, but it certainly was successful.) In the end, you never know when something that starts as fanfiction might turn into a bigger project… 🙂
I’ve enjoyed prompts on the rare occasion I’ve allowed myself to do them, but tend to spend too much time on them :-/ *sigh* Oh, well…
Gabriela Pereira says
I totally hear you, Donna. It’s all about finding the right balance, one that works for you. 🙂
Joy Pixley says
Hello Gabriella — this is such a fun coincidence. I am reading DIY MFA for the first time (I can already tell it won’t be the *last* time!) and over breakfast this morning I just read the chapter where you cover this topic! Great advice, in both formats.
I am usually terrible with writing exercises, especially in a workshop setting. As soon as someone says “write NOW,” my brain freezes up and I can’t seem to formulate a single cohesive sentence, much less two in a row. However, I’ve become a huge proponent of photo prompt writing challenges. I subscribe to several weekly challenges, and find them to be excellent for generating exciting ideas for longer stories, and for world-building my secondary fantasy world. It’s also wonderful writing practice: when you have a limit of only 200, 150, or even 100 words (!), you have to make every word count! As a bonus, I post the stories on my blog on a regular basis, so I’m already checking off that box on the “build community” column of the DIY MFA goal list. It’s win-win-win!
Glynis Jolly says
Gabriela, I know you are right, yet that same anxiety I feel while working on my WiP takes hold of me when I do a prompt or exercise.
Out of curiosity, do you think doing prompts/exercises in longhand is better than typing them?
Gabriela Pereira says
Great question, Glynis. I think it depends on the writer. I like writing by hand because it feels “messier” and I can allow myself to be more spontaneous. Also, I tend to type on the fast side and I often skip or mistype words, which can lead to a garbled mess. When I write by hand, it forces me to slow down a little more and I’m able to process my ideas a bit better.
But in the end, it’s about what works well for each individual writer. This is why I’m such a big fan of testing out different methods. I would try writing longhand for a few writing sessions and then typing for a few others and see what works for you!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I love this, Gabriella! I really resonate with #1 and #3 because I would really like to start writing fiction again, but I worry about the whole “those who can’t, teach” which is silly on one hand because I was able to get agents with my fiction, I did make it to acquisitions, all that, and this is before I really delved into teaching writing and expanding my knowledge. But still, there’s the worry of being held to a higher standard and coming up short.
Prompts are the perfect way to get back into the swing of fiction without pressure and to just have fun with it, and for me that’s what I need most. 🙂
Gabriela Pereira says
OMG, I totally hear you on the “those who can’t, teach” stuff. That mental gremlin gets me all the time. Prompts are definitely a way for me to get back in the swing when I haven’t done “real writing” for a while. It’s funny how easily we can beat ourselves up about our writing. 🙂
Prompts aren’t just great for fiction, though. I use them all the time as ways to kickstart story ideas I share in my newsletters, or when I’m drafting up a script for keynote or presentation I’m giving. I keep a box by my desk (I call it my ORACLE) filled with materials for writing exercises. Whenever I’m stuck, I just pull something at random and see what happens from there.