Let’s look at the pros and cons of using writing prompts to decide if we’re fostering creativity or frittering away time.
I remember the pleasure of writing about ladybugs for my high school freshman English class based on the prompt written on the board.1
And then there was the book I found a year or so at the library: Write to Discover Yourself. The author suggested we “portrait” the important people in our lives.2 I wrote pages and pages about my dad based on that prompt.
Prompts continued to play a big role in my creative writing journey when college professors supplied our class with poetry prompts.
Those prompts did exactly what they were designed for: they sparked creativity, teased out long-buried memories, and helped me spin creative storylines I would never have imagined on my own. Prompts have so effectively opened me up, I decided to gather a collection for others to use called 52 Creative Writing Prompts, to help get pens moving and ideas flowing.
Do Prompts Distract or Delight?
But am I doing a disservice? Are prompts mere distractions, diverting writers from purposeful, goal-oriented writing?
Some argue we need to stop using prompts and only write toward public-facing projects. Why waste time on writing prompts that fill notebooks and journal pages, when we’re struggling to find time for the writing we claim we want to do? Why write in response to a random prompt instead of composing the essay we want to submit, the book we want to draft, the article we want to pitch?
Let’s peek at arguments for both sides, the pros and cons of prompts, to see if we need to embrace or abandon them in our creative writing life.
Pros of Creative Writing Prompts:
On the plus side we have benefits of creative writing prompts, such as how they:
1. Spark Fresh Ideas
Creative writing prompts inspire writers who struggle to generate any ideas at all by giving them an energizing starting point. Prompts also spark fresh ideas in writers who tend to return again and again to topics they’ve written about before. Prompts press writers to explore subject matter outside their comfort zone, breathing new life into their rotating collection of pet topics and pillar content.
2. Overcome Writer’s Block
Prompts offer a lifeline to writers grappling with writer’s block—they invite a “stuck” writer to write freely for ten, 15, or 20 minutes without those words needing a destination or purpose other than to get the ink flowing.
3. Provide Low-Stakes Practice
Writing prompts intended as practice serve as low-stakes exercises, encouraging writers to play and experiment without the pressure of immediate evaluation by editors or readers. Prompts allow writers to refine their craft and explore techniques in the safety of their writing notebooks and journals. In time they may develop a more captivating style.
4. Prepare for Assignments
Freelancers who’ve been assigned a topic for a magazine or essayists who have entered themed writing contests benefit from writing from prompts. It’ll prepare them for assignments based on narrow parameters.
5. Offer a Writing Warm-up
When writers tap out a few words in response to a prompt before diving into their long-form/high-stakes project, they can enjoy a brief warm-up that loosens them up.
6. Enhance Honesty and Depth
With prompts, writers delve into deeper personal experiences, memories, emotions, and themes without fear of judgment, leading to more honest and profound writing.
7. Lead to Personal Growth and Healing
When intentionally selecting prompts that invite reflection—maybe even under the direction of a therapist—writers can experience transformation through personal growth and healing. It’s no surprise that when we spend time in personal writing such as journaling, we grow and mature as people, which in turn makes us better writers.
Cons of Creative Writing Prompts:
To be fair, we need to look at the cons of creative writing prompts and how they might hinder our writing.
1. Waste Time
Critics argue that writing prompts can lead to aimless scribbling on topics unrelated to our writing goals and projects—time we could have dedicated to a work-in-progress. Instead, it’s being swallowed up by an unrelated prompt. Marion Roach Smith wonders why we can’t try warming up by writing toward the main project itself. Her big argument: when you write from prompts “you’re frittering away your time” instead of writing “with intent” and “for real.”3
2. Spit Out Stilted Prose
Savannah Cordova observes, “If you choose a prompt that’s too far out of your comfort zone (or one doesn’t really inspire you), it’s no surprise that the response will usually come out sounding forced.”4
3. Lack Purpose
Prompts are usually random—in fact, some websites offer random prompt generators. These offer no clear direction or purpose; they simply invite us to write a random scene. Lacking purpose, have we strayed from our goal of completing a project?
4. Allow Writers to Avoid Feedback
While some writing groups use prompts and offer input from the group, writing to prompts privately means we miss the opportunity of receiving input and feedback from real readers. In contrast, when we write for readers in public in a place like Substack, we can see our work resonate with others when they respond in the comments.
5. Encourage Procrastination
Are some writers using prompts to avoid their main project? Relying on prompts for this purpose could be a form of procrastination instead of hitting a word count goal on a more important and urgent project. “Admittedly, prompts can be valuable — as an exercise,” writes Jeff Goins. “But eventually, you don’t need another day at the gym. You need to sign up for the marathon and run. You need to go play a real game. You need to do something. Here’s what I find productive — far more than writing prompts (no offense to those who use them): Write something meaningful and share it.”5
Is it really either/or?
It’s easy to see the appeal of creative writing prompts but important to consider the downsides and “dangers” of them, as well.
Words of caution from Marion Roach Smith and others remind me that while a solid prompt can open up the flow of words, it could also—if not used judiciously and with purpose—keep me from hitting my most important targets and deadlines.
But is it really either/or?
An integrated approach to prompts
I could propose a controversial conclusion banning prompts from serious writing work. Yeah, sure. I might get more hits on social media or responses in online searches.
But studying the pros and cons of using creative writing prompts has led me to a less controversial and more integrated conclusion. And maybe those who argue against them would agree to a thoughtfully integrated approach as well.
Here’s what I’m thinking…
Real Projects May Benefit from Prompts
Prompts could be used when we’re working toward the deadline and find ourselves stuck or blocked. Yes, a real project might benefit from a prompt.
We can set a timer and write for 20 minutes from a prompt to get our words flowing—any words flowing. When the timer beeps, we return to the official project with fresh eyes. The timer limits prompt-writing and minimizes distraction and procrastination while the prompt refreshes the mind. We’re still completing the “official” writing—in fact, the time spent responding to the prompt might brighten the tone of the finished piece.
Prompts Invite Creative Connections for Effective Slants
Prompts could be used to generate a narrow focus for a freelance pitch, landing on a creative slant or angle that gets a “yes” from an editor. In this case, prompts aren’t keeping us from our “real” work but are in fact used to inform and inspire our “real’ work.
Prompts for Personal Reflection Make for Better Writers…and therefore Better Writing
And behind the scenes, free from public scrutiny, we could use prompts for inner work that shapes us into more insightful and compassionate writers.
It would be hard to measure a prompt’s influence on a future manuscript, but the writer will have more to draw from because they used prompts to privately sort out life, pain, problems, and confusion.
Creative Writing Prompts Have a Place in the Writing Life
That doesn’t seem like a time-waster to me. Those private writing sessions? They could stay in a journal or notebook or who knows? One day that unfiltered writing may liberate the writer to produce more vulnerable projects that transform readers. And maybe one day they actually pull from some of those private writing sessions. Some of the actual content may find its way into a powerful piece.
I agree that writers with limited writing time will want to choose prompts wisely, avoiding procrastination by funneling as much as possible into their work-in-progress.
But I do think prompts have a place in our writing life, our writing practice, and our writing process.
As for me, I’ll be using prompts…with purpose.
How about you?
How have prompts served your creative work or distracted you from it?
Will you continue to use prompts? If so, how will you use them (and how often will you use them)?
52 Creative Writing Prompts:
A Year of Weekly Prompts and Exercises to Boost Your Creativity
- Kroeker, Ann. “Creating Worlds from Words: The Unremarkable Beginnings of a Writing Life.” Substack.com, Story Hatchery, 15 Apr. 2023, annkroeker.substack.com/p/creating-worlds-from-words-the-unremarkable. Accessed 12 Oct. 2023.
- Kroeker, Ann. “Ep 180: Write to Discover – Start with Yourself – Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.” Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, 8 Jan. 2019, annkroeker.com/2019/01/08/ep-180-write-to-discover-start-with-yourself/. Accessed 12 Oct. 2023.
- Smith, Marion Roach. “Memoir Writing Resolutions. Number One: No More Writing Prompts – Memoir Coach and Author Marion Roach.” Memoir Coach and Author Marion Roach, 27 Dec. 2011, marionroach.com/2011/12/memoir-writing-resolutions-number-one-no-more-writing-exercises/. Accessed 4 Oct. 2023.
- https://www.facebook.com/jamigold.author. “Writing Prompts: Helpful? Or a Waste of Time? — Guest: Savannah Cordova.” Jami Gold, Paranormal Author, 16 Apr. 2019, jamigold.com/2019/04/writing-prompts-helpful-or-a-waste-of-time-guest-savannah-cordova/. Accessed 4 Oct. 2023.
- Jeff Goins “The Last Writing Prompt You Will Ever Need.” Goinswriter.com, 2015, goinswriter.com/writing-prompts/. Accessed 4 Oct. 2023.