The Art of the Bad Writing Prompt

You might be a writer if you’re reading this. Most of the people getting my updates are at this point. I’m here today to bitch about creative writing prompts.

These are supposed to be really easy things that get ideas rolling. Problem is, most people don’t understand what a writing prompt is intended to do and how it’s supposed to be formatted.

Basically it’s supposed to get you thinking so you write a short bit about it. Or a long bit. Or an entire novel. Some people confuse this with ‘Get you to write something for ten seconds’.

Now FYI, I could base a story on the table sitting across from me if I wanted to. Even these really bad ones could inspire more than they’re designed to, but the idea behind a writing prompt is to give you something more.

“Write a sentence”

If that phrase either begins or ends a writing prompt, there is something wrong.

We go to prompts because we’re not sure what to write and we need something to get us in a creative mood. Writing a sentence isn’t going to do that. It’s a ridiculous limitation and not in any way useful to us in the long run. It’s a writing exercise now, a game to see if we can answer the question in as short a space as possible.

You know, we already do this on Twitter and Facebook. We don’t need to be doing this for our ‘serious’ writing too.

Write in a method tantamount to a complete waste of time

One I saw today: ‘A year passes between every sentence’

You’ll spend more time trying to figure out how to write these sentences than actually writing them. It would be like a weird, disjointed journal entry, but what will I, the reader, get out of it? It falls under the ‘writing exercise’ rule, because it might teach you something about writing (particularly if you’re too verbose) but for the average writer this is just procrastinating.

An introspective question

“Write about your first love”

“Write about your favorite vacation spot”

“What do you like to do in the winter months?”

“You’re alone in the zombie apocalypse…”

I don’t write about myself. I write about fictional characters. I could write about my first love, but then my first love in inspiring my writing and not this prompt. My favorite vacation spot isn’t likely a setting in any of my novels and I would immediately die in the zombie apocalypse.

Switch it around to make them entirely creative projects and suddenly these are amazing scenes:

“Write the first meeting of true love”

“Describe a vacation spot”

“A winter storm blows in. Once again, it’s the Storm of the Century™. What happens?”

“A lone survivor in a zombie apocalypse…”

Learning more about yourself is great if you want that, but when you’re looking to get inspired for your next scene thinking about your own faults and flaws is just distracting when you’re trying to create. I’m thinking about how I don’t have a partner right now and I should get back to OkCupid or how I haven’t had a vacation in five years and maybe I could scrounge up the money for one. These are things the bored writer needs to avoid!

Blatant self-insert

Related to the previous issue, sometimes the prompt literally demands you insert yourself in to the action.

Like the zombie apocalypse one, the end result is going to be pretty quick. One might assume using the ‘You’ pronoun is an attempt to indicate this is supposed to be written in first person, but it’s a prompt, it’s not supposed to be dictating point of view, unless it’s the point of view a certain character (the morning according to a ladybug). Prompts are supposed to be a chance to experiment in different points of view, just like it’s a chance to write topic you normally wouldn’t.

The better way

Over on /r/writingprompts they give some advice on how to write a good prompt. They encourage open-ended prompts with many options for the writer to explore.

If you write an open prompt it can go many other directions. While you might see the prompt as being dark, it could be written as a light-hearted comedy. Some amusing could take a dark turn. A romantic ideal can turn to horror very easily.

Don’t force the writer down the path you think they should go. It’s not the purpose of the prompt. The purpose is to encourage and inspire others to write more.