There have been days where I’ve sat in front of my computer and simply stared at a blank screen for the better part of an hour. Sometimes more. The words simply wouldn’t form in my head, and my fingers were locked in place on the keyboard. It’s frustrating. Or worse, demoralizing. To avoid those feelings, I started to use writing prompts as an exercise each morning.
A writing prompt is a word, phrase, paragraph or picture that writers can use as a catalyst to start a creative writing session. Some writers will use a writing prompt to start a short story or even a novel.
This article is intended to help you learn more about writing prompts, from how to most effectively use them to the benefits that could be in store. I’ve also included links to my monthly creative writing prompts for middle grade authors.
The Intention of a Creative Writing Prompt: Unlock Your Subconscious
The primary intention of a writing prompt is to overcome writer’s block.
Writer’s block is typically caused by an overzealous desire to be perfect. We ruminate about each word that write, fearful that our agent and editor will discover that we’re imposters who truly are the terrible writers that the critical voice in our heads always said that we were.
At the same time, we know that perfection is an impossible standard, but still we push forward expecting nothing less than a standard we’ll never meet. We start to compare ourselves writers, forgetting that the biggest value we bring is our own personal writing style and our point of view.
That battle takes place in our conscious mind and without help, it’s a battle we’ll never win. Trust me, I know from experience. There was a three week stretch where I wrote fourteen hours a day and produced all of three paragraphs. By the end of that stretch I thought that I was going to lose my mind.
How to Avoid Your Critical Voice
Your conscious mind is where the critical voice of doubt lives—you know, the voice that second guesses every choice you make. That voice knows your every weakness and it’ll use every doubt you’ve ever had against you until you’re curled up in a fetal position. Okay, so maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but I’ve been there.
The best way to fight back against the voice of doubt is to shift from conscious writing to subconscious writing. After all, your conscious mind is where that critical voice exists. It focuses on the mechanics and the quality of your writing. That’s fine for editing. In fact, you want to be in your conscious mind while you’re crafting your first draft into something beautiful.
How to Write Without Judgement
Your subconscious mind is where the words flow freely without judgement. It’s that place writers try to tap into when they’re waiting to be inspired. That critical inner voice who dominates your conscious mind isn’t allowed there. You feel free from the bondage of judgement and self-doubt, and once you’re there you never want to leave.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait for inspiration that may or may not show up each day. Professional writers simply don’t have the luxury to hope for a good day. They need to manufacture it—to sit down and knock out a couple thousand (or more) quality words every day.
It’s actually fairly easy to trigger your subconscious writer. One of the tricks that will get you there is writing prompts.
How to Use a Creative Writing Prompt
I took a life drawing class at Arizona State University. My dream of becoming either a Disney animator or a Marvel Comics penciler (that’s what they call illustrators) hadn’t quite died (but it was definitely on life support). Each day we started class with warmup sketches. Some lasted 30-seconds, others a minute.
They were short intervals where we had to be quick in order to capture the essence of the form. The idea wasn’t to create perfect art. I was to loosen up so you were ready for your drawing session.
Like warmup sketches, the purpose of a creative writing prompt is to loosen you up. Sure, you want limber fingers that will allow you type faster, but it’s really about shifting from your conscious, self-critical mind to your subconscious where you are free to write without the worry of second guessing yourself.
Use Prompts That Are Unrelated to Your Current Manuscript
There’s too much pressure to use a writing prompt from your current manuscript. Either you’re trying to write something good enough to attract an agent or an editor, or you’re trying to prove to your current agent or editor that you were worth the investment. Both situations are fertile ground for that critical voice of doubt that stalks conscious mind like a leopard hunting a fawn.
The best way to avoid that is using a writing prompt that has absolutely no direct relationship to your career. When there are no stakes involved, you can access your subconscious mind much quicker. And that’s the point of the writing prompt.
Tell Yourself That You’re the Only Person Who Will Ever Read This
Give yourself time. When you first start using writing prompts, you’re going to struggle. In the beginning, there’ll be a few days when you love what you wrote. You might even get an idea for a new book. But there’ll be many more days where you’ll hate each word and wonder why you thought a writing career was possible.
That’s ridiculous, and you know it.
Remember, the point of a creative writing exercise is not to craft a perfect story. You’re simply trying to get into a flow where you leave your critical conscious mind behind. That’s it.
If it’s good, great. That’s a bonus. But go into the exercise knowing that you’re the only one who will ever read it. Besides, the truth of the matter is that you’ll likely never read it again anyway.
Don’t Overcomplicate It, Just Write
The objective of a creative writing exercise isn’t quality. You’re training yourself to write with fearless abandon. The best way to get there is to write fast. Don’t overthink it. Just write.
I realize that goes against your nature—and it definitely goes against everything you’ve been taught or read about writing. But now isn’t the time to worry about story structure, depth of character or even motivation. You want to tap into your subconscious mind and let the words flow.
You’re writing the first draft of an exercise that you’ll likely never read again. So push forward and have some fun. There’s no pressure here!
Write for Fifteen Minutes—No More, No Less
If you start your day with a writing prompt, there will be times when you’re having so much fun that you’ll want to keep going after your fifteen minutes are up.
You’ll justify it by saying that you could waste a day or two investigating this new story idea because you’re way ahead of schedule on your manuscript. If you stop now, you’ll lose the story. And this could be the one—your breakthrough to becoming an international bestselling author.
Look, I’ve been there and those thoughts are intoxicating. Who knows, it might even be true, but you have a job to do and that’s to finish the first draft of your current manuscript.
If you really love the results of your morning exercise, jot down a few notes and then file everything away. You can come back to it later that night or over the weekend. But for now, you have to guard against anything that will distract you from your ultimate objective: finishing your current manuscript.
That means when your fifteen minutes are up, it’s time to move on. No exceptions.
Dive Right into Your Manuscript When You’re Done
There are days when you when you’ll feel invigorated after your creative writing exercise, and others where you’ll be exhausted. Either way, there’s a good chance that you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something significant—and you have!
The problem comes when you feel like you need a reward for completing a fifteen-minute exercise. Guard against the temptation of checking email or a social media feed. You haven’t earned a break. Not yet.
Besides, the primary objective for your creative writing exercise was to take you out of your conscious mind where your voice of doubt presides and get you to your subconscious, so you’re free to write without judgement. If you stop to read a quick blog post, you’ll have to start all over again.
Benefits of Creative Writing Prompts
Starting your day with a creative writing prompt carries little risk, but it can pay big dividends. Here are some of the benefits…
Helps quiet the voice of doubt in your head. Instead of worrying about whether or not you are crafting a perfect sentence, because there are no stakes a writing prompt allows you to shift from your conscious brain (critical voice) to your subconscious brain (free flowing ideas).
Eliminates stress. We place a lot of pressure on ourselves to craft the perfect manuscript. We convince ourselves that our entire future is on the line if we fail. No wonder writing shifts from something we once loved to a dreaded form of torture that we want to avoid. The beauty of a 15-minute writing exercise is that there are zero stakes, and that means there’s no pressure.
Helps you write fast. You have a fifteen-minute clock that’s ticking, and it’s going to drive you to write as many words as you can in that time period so you have as close to a complete story as you get in that time period. That’s great training that you can take into your manuscript. Write fast. And don’t stop to edit. That’s the key to a successful first draft.
Strengthens your creative muscles. The purpose of a creative writing prompt is not to launch a bestselling novel. It’s about freeing up your subconscious to write a first draft without the shackles of critical thinking. However, you will find that the quality of the work you produce during your morning creative writing exercises will improve by leaps and bounds over time.
You’ll have better ideas, develop more complex characters, introduce exciting plots, captivating tension, and big stakes—all in fifteen minutes. Just be patient and let it happen. Don’t let your critical conscious mind drive the exercise—let it all happen in your subconscious.
Form good habits. By sitting down every morning and engaging in a quick 15-minute writing exercise, you’re starting to form good habits. If you keep it up long enough, your body will start to crave that time and it will lead to more prolific and effective writing sessions with your manuscript.
Writing Prompt Resources
Looking for writing prompts for middle grade authors? Each month we post daily prompts that will inspire your creative session.
How Long Should a Middle Grade Novel Be? There is no true standard when it comes the length of a middle grade novel. However, as a rule of thumb you could consider the following:
- Upper Middle Grade: 60,000-90,000 words
- General Middle Grade: 45,000-60,000 words
- Lower Middle Grade: 20,000-45,000 words
What is a Middle Grade Book? A middle grade book refers to a book that is targeted to children who are ten-12 years old, or in fourth-sixth grade. Lower middle grade books can target advanced readers as young as eight years old.