The Freelance Writing Trenches: On Writing "Prompt"ly

Tuesday, February 28, 2012
typewriter I've noticed a trend with writing "community" blogs. In general, the blogs supply readers with a writing prompt. A couple days later, the blog invites you to link up the post you wrote based on that prompt.

Now, I'm all about building community with writers, but for all the writer blogs I run across that provide writing prompt link-ups, I'm rarely tempted to spend my time actually follow the prompt. Why? Because unless the prompts fit into something I was already planning to write about, the prompts usually seem like a waste of my writing time.

I know writing prompts have many devotees. And if using a writing prompt is what you need to get your writing engine revved up, go for it. But I have my doubts about how much writing prompts really contribution to the creation of strong, confident writers. I think any writer out there dreaming of becoming a "real" writer needs to carefully examine their relationship with prompts.

As Jeff Goins wrote earlier this year on his blog: "Admittedly, prompts can be very valuable. As an exercise. 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."

Hope Clark, who's never afraid of saying what she really means (bless her!) about the writing life, took her distaste of writing prompts one step further than Goins in this blog post.

"As you would imagine, prompts are used to teach children how to write stories," Clark wrote. "Children, while imaginative, have to first learn that a story has a theme, a beginning, middle and end. Prompts help them define those terms and create a story that’s molded properly. Adults, however, should be past that.

"As a freelancer, you are trying to earn a living. Ideas should be your meat and potatoes. You should be able to sit in your chair and not get up without an idea. In other words, you should be able to generate your own prompt, only you will use it to get somewhere, not just practice."

Most people have a finite amount of writing time each day. If you want to be a freelance writer, you need to spend that writing time productively. And yes by productively, I mean making money. You should be building your platform. Writing that will remain hidden forever in the depths of a notebook is not productive writing.

It sounds crass, especially since we writers are sensitive souls who love words and often write because it's the only real way we know how to process the world around us. Writing may be our art, but it's also our profession and  there's a point in any writer's life where the artistic statement stops and the paying bills begins. When we've really make it as writers, hopefully we get to create artistic statements and pay the bills.

I think writers are especially prone to thinking that they have to pass over some magical threshold before they declare themselves "writers." UWe forget that it's the act of writing that makes us writers in the first place.

Think about it: in school, did you thrive in English and composition? Have you received compliments on your writing? If  you've been writing for years, chances are you know how to write well enough to put yourself out there. Sure, it's scary and you're bound to face a fair bit rejection. Then again, if you can't take rejection, this writing gig isn't going to suit you very well. 

I don't mean to come down so harshly on writing prompts. What I'm trying to say is that we the writers are the ones who decide whether or not this is our hobby or profession.    

So, before you start in on another writing prompt, ask yourself:
  • How does this help me reach my goals as a writer?
  • Is this the best use of my writing time? 
  • What will I do with this piece of writing once it's completed?
Chances are you have all sorts of ideas rattling around in that writer's brain of yourself. So ditch the prompts and write one of those ideas. 

Trust yourself. Write your own material. Own it. Sell it.



  1. Not beign a freelance writer I have not a lot to add here. BUT
    I remember when I found your blogpost about ""Your personal 7 world wonders"" which was part of a writing prompt. Well, by no means I am a writer and never will be. I am grateful for being introduced to this writing prompts as these help me hoon my writing in English and even better to stay focued while writing in English.

  2. Agreed! I see those prompts and can never think of a relatable story I want to share, so I am not a prompted writer :)

  3. I agree. Well, I don't participate really in the blogger/ writer community, but I always read those and think, "what? write something else other than what's already on my long list? WHEN?" That same feeling has dictated the columns/ jobs I've taken before too. If it sounds like It'll be work to do it, I just don't do it. But then, I'm not really trying to make money writing yet. Blah blah blah I'm all full of words in this comment haha!

  4. Writing prompts are kinda fun, but you sure made some valid points with your post. As much as I like the idea of being a children's author, I am finding it difficult to get into this mindset to hit hard. Maybe this is a phase and I'll soon out grow it. At some point, I'll need to examine my purpose in the grand theme of things in blogsphere, but for now I'm just having fun. Thanks for linking up at Wayback Wednesdays

  5. I've never participated in prompts for exactly this reason. That, and I find a lot of the topics to be boring. If I think someone else's prompt is boring, why would I expect anyone to want to read mine, regardless of the amount of time and effort I put into it?

    That said, I did just sign up to participate in the Scintilla Project ( because it totally intrigued me. It starts sometime next week, so I don't know yet what kind of prompts there will be, but I am looking forward to a challenge, even if it's just a personal challenge.

  6. "Writing that will remain hidden forever in the depths of a notebook is not productive writing."
    I disagree in a way. One thing I have been relieved to learn after 10 years of freelance storytelling is that nothing is wasted. Those ideas and half-stories I began and the projects I wanted to do but didn't have the knowledge to accomplish did eventually happen--the important ones. And they arose in a pretty organic way. It's a gift to stop being hard on myself.
    I think it is really important to be frivolous as an artist--I count prompts as frivolous. Julia Cameron, author of "The Artist's Way" and many other books on creativity (and writing) says that your inner artist is a child and should be treated with the generosity and playfulness with which you would treat a real child.
    I think distinguishing from the childlike artist and the freelance/business adult is a more useful way to make a decision. You can't play ALL of the time, and you can't work ALL of the time--it's a balance. If it's playtime and you don't feel like making up your own game to start, use a prompt. For 10 minutes (or whatever). Do it to get your words on the page. Julia Cameron says she uses cheap tricks with her inner artist all the time and has no shame in it because it works (such as a sprig of flowers at her writing desk or a good piece of chocolate).
    Don't lose the love of writing for the money of writing. Don't add so much structure that it's nothing but rules. But yes, be honest with yourself about what you are avoiding/afraid of.


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