Why You Need to Try Writing Prompts


I’ve never really been one for writing prompts. Like everyone else, I am busy, and so have always felt the writing time I had needed to be as productive as humanly possible. If I wasn’t adding to my word count, I was wasting time. It will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been writing for a while that I got pretty burned out by that strategy. The joy of writing was gone, and without that, there was no point.

This summer, I’m giving myself the opportunity to play with my writing. My commitment is not to a number of words or chapters or books finished, but rather that every morning, first thing, I will write for fifteen uninterrupted minutes. It is Morning Pages, basically. I journal, write, brainstorm new works, or even draw.

Inspired by a class I took with Jo Knowles, I’ve also been trying writing prompts. I am amazed at the way they spark creativity and deepen my prose. They’re great practice, in the way that a sprints workout can goose your running program. Best of all for my purposes, they’re fun. I’ve been having a ball.

There are different kinds of prompts. Some are designed to inspire you into a new story, like this list or this one. Others can help you flesh out your work in progress, like this one on character development and this one on setting. For plot, I love the ideas in this article. Jen Malone also suggests writing a synopsis of your story and asking writing partners to come up with twenty “what if” questions based on it (e.g., “What if the best friend is a boy instead of girl?” or “What if she never finds the necklace?”).

Of course, because this is my summer of decadence, I prefer the prompts that are not designed to help me with a new or existing work. I like that ones that are just about fun and practice, like this calendar of 365 writing prompts, and this list from Writer Magazine. Prompts don’t have to be some formal thing, either; as suggested in this Lee & Low post, a good prompt might be a headline, a passage you highlighted in a book, or what you see outside. Another idea is to do flash fiction, where you give yourself five random words and have to write a 100-word story using those words. Janet Reid often has contests like this on her blog, but you don’t have to wait for her to post one, or to share your work if you do use her prompts. Finally, Kate Messner hosts a wonderful summer writing camp. It’s aimed at teachers and librarians, but anyone can play along. She has an impressive roster of writers lined up to provide lessons, and every Monday, Jo Knowles (the very same!) will give a writing prompt.

You can peruse these lists and choose a prompt that appeals to you. Consider, however, picking one at random, or purposely choosing one that feels difficult. In this TED Talk, Tim Harford discusses the power of discomfort to unlock creativity. Composer and music producer Brian Eno uses a deck of cards with different prompts, like “Everyone switch instruments,” or “Make a sudden, destructive, and unpredictable noise. Incorporate it.” Musicians with whom he is working have to pick a card and must try the prompt it contains.

The musicians hate it. Phil Collins threw beer cans, apparently. The work that comes out of these experiments, though, is often creative and new. When Eno instead used a list of prompts posted on the wall and let the musicians choose, the work was not as exciting. He believes that the random selection of an uncomfortable prompt—the struggle with something difficult—is what leads to creative breakthroughs. His work, with musicians from U2 to Coldplay to David Bowie, appears to hold that up. If you want to try Brian Eno’s cards, you can pick one here. Some are specific to music, but some work for writers, too.

Ready to dive in? Here is a challenge for you, inspired by the contests of the sharkly Janet Reid. Write a 100-word story that contains the following words: girl, orange, piano, pitcher, mulberry. There are no winners or losers in this, it’s just for fun, but if you’d like to post your story in the comments, I’d love to read it!

Katharine Manning has written two middle grade novels–a contemporary fantasy about a girl who saves unicorns and a contemporary on what happens when a new girl upends a girls’ soccer team. You can see her recommendations for middle grade readers at www.kidbooklist.com, and you can find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter. She also recently discovered Instagram and would appreciate any tips you have on the care and feeding of it.

Up Your Game with the Write Fashions from THE WINGED PEN

closed Mac laptop with fingerless purple mittens and sparkly jewelry
Essentials for the productive writer: laptop, warm hands, and bling. Sweatpants not shown.

Can the right clothes inspire writers?

In a word, yes. My Winged Pen fellow, Michelle Leonard, pointed me to this article about how clothes affect our performance. Get your red sneakers now before there’s a run on them!

So what do productive writers wear?

Lucky socks? Writer’s baseball cap? NaNoWrimo Winner t-shirt?

I once had a beloved writing sweater with a monk-like cowl with pom-pom and deep pockets to keep those typing hands warm.

I asked the other Pen fellows about their writing soft-wear. Here’s what they said:

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Kristi Wientge: “My clothes don’t matter (although I can’t be in PJ’s), but I do NOT write productively without eye makeup. It’s true.”


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Halli Gomez: “I do have a baseball cap that says Writer on it but I don’t wear it to write. I wear it run to keep the sun off my face. I can write in pajamas, jeans, shorts in the summer. Anything.”



Jessica Vitalis: “Anything as long as I’m warm. That usually means I’m writing in a fleece hat. In the winter, I add a down robe to the mix. It’s quite a look.”


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Rebecca Smith-Allen: “Slouchy jeans that my husband is always telling me to replace (um…but the point is that they’re slouchy), a comfy, old t-shirt, and slippers that are on when I’m cold, then off when I’m hot. Then I’ve forgotten where I left them when I need them again because I’m cold.”

Photo credit: Gail WernerJulie Artz: “I almost always write in wild socks. I have knee high fuzzy IMG_2762purple/hot pink striped slipper socks for when it’s cold, a pair complaining about the rain that Matt got me when we decided to move to the Pacific Northwest, and a variety of rainbow colored stripes, polka dots, and argyle socks. I also usually wear a kitten for a lap-warmer.“

Photo credit: Gail Werne


Michelle Leonard: “What I’m wearing isn’t nearly as important as holding a bag of warmed cherry pits, even in the summer. I get so cold when I write! I have to warm them in the microwave every 30 minutes or so. Getting up to do that is exercise, right?”


Kate photo Spring 2014

Kate Manning: “I’m usually in a soft, warm sweater and, of course, my fox slippers.”IMG_2763





Gabrielle K. Byrne: “Slouchy for the win. Sweats and a robe or long sweater. Oh – I have two rings I don sometimes as inspiration. One’s a giant fossil and the other is a dark blue droozy that sparkles like the night sky. There’s definitely a kind-of “I’m fancy” illusion that’s going on between the bathrobe and the jewelry.”



Jennifer Brister Park: “I always wear workout clothes so I can remind myself at some point I have to get up and exercise.”



Hilary Harwell: “I wear workout clothes too, and I’d like to think I do so for the same reasons as Jennifer Brister Park, but it’s mostly because they’re comfortable and stretchy. My hair is usually up in some wild knot and my clothes are rarely matching. I like to think of it as the crazed writer look.”



Mark Holtzen: “Fleece early morning. When I venture to coffee shop I up my game. Trying to be more professional and treat it like the work that it is. I guess I’m maturing? (Nah.)”



So now you know how to up your writing game–with these fashion tips from THE WINGED PEN! Do you have an inspirational writing get-up? Share in the comments below.

IMG_4373HighResHeadshotLDLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for a nonexistent sense of direction, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. When she’s not lost, she can be found on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.


The Road to Writer

typing_brucealmightyWhat makes a writer a writer? I’ve heard, and I’m sure you have too, the mantra that if you write, you’re a writer. That’s true, so far as it goes. The work doesn’t do itself. You can have Pulitzer-prize-winning, banned bestsellers coming out your ears, but if they stay there (between your ears) then they’re not going to do anyone much good. The story must meet the page. Period. Full stop. So, there is that small hurdle. Step one towards becoming a writer is write. This task, and it can feel like a task sometimes, no matter how inspired you are on the journey, might take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. Reports vary—a lot.

Office Worker with Mountain of PaperworkFor those of us who want our stories out in the world being read, there are more hurdles—many more. Once you’ve delved into the details, dust and drives of your book’s world, subjected your characters to the throes and follies of their fears, and made it through the weeks/months/years of late nights writing, complete with their varied wardrobe malfunctions, you must find someone (an agent) who can represent your work and sell it. This will require you to query—to pitch. To pitch, you will do the following: Take your masterpiece and roll it into a tight little two-paragraph ball that has voice, clarity and intrigue. Throw it with all your might (and thoughtful courtesy) towards agents you respect.  Depending on your talent, your story, and your luck, finding someone to represent your work could take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. Again, reports vary.

atYou’ve found a wonderful, experienced, and enthusiastic agent who thinks you have what it takes! Huzzah! Now exhale. Then go crazy! Flail! You’ve earned it. Next you’ll dive back in and repeat the writing/re-writing and editing process with your agent. When you’ve leaped all the editorial hurdles you can find together, your agent will pitch your manuscript to editors at publishing houses. They may share all of the feedback they get about your manuscript, or, they may buffer you completely. My agent was kind enough to ask me what I wanted and we agreed that I didn’t have to have every little detail, but that if there was consensus about anything, or something that she felt would be good for me to know, she would share it. Feel the peace. Having someone you trust standing with you, encouraging you, and believing in your work is the best feeling ever (Thank you, Catherine).  Enjoy it.

Your agent will pitch your book based on their strategy, and contacts, until he or she finds an editor who loves your work too. Finding your agent is only the beginning. All those quotes you see about author rejection–you know, the ones that tell you how many time JK Rowling and Tolkien and Hemingway were rejected? They aren’t talking about those authors trying to find agents—well sometimes they are, but more often, they are talking about that author finding a publisher. This debut process could take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. This will also be true for your next book. Stop me when you see the theme here.


A writer friend once told me, and it has become part of my gospel truth, that being a writer is not so much a career move as it is a lifestyle choice. You must love to write. You must commit to the story and to the people in your head. If you really mean it, you’ll get to do this most days that you remain on earth, and it will (mostly) thrill you to the dark little corners of your soul.

Once the words are in the bag, getting those stories into booky-things that regular, non-writer people will read and love comes down, I believe, to the three Ps – Practice, Persistence, and Patience. These will be your go-to tools. They will be your bread and butter as well as your sun, your moon, and all your stars. Accept and love them. Start now. Learn them well, and however long your own path to bookdom turns out to be, you’ll be better able to protect your heart and continue loving your work.


Gabrielle Byrne lives in the rain-beaten wilds of Olympia, Washington, where she writes fantasy for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Follow her on Twitter: @GKByrne