Writing exercises or prompts are codified, developed, and tested methods to invent or generate new writing or to work on certain elements of craft in writing.
Writing exercises or prompts develop in two main ways. First, writing prompts come out of writing constraints that authors either establish as a writing experiment or recognize as valuable or significant in the wake of writing a piece that sustains enough interest to perhaps pursue repeatedly and be of value to writers besides the author.
Writing prompts, then, attempt to achieve one or more of several outcomes. First, writing prompts act as a codification of or bridge between the “sacred” moment of impulse or inspiration that drives a work, attempting to capture and define the scaffolding or structural elements of a significant moment and see if that moment might be formally replicated or filled out with new content. Second, writing prompts serve as a means to establish new methods of creative or critical thinking, by attempting to suggest ways to write that do not come naturally to or are unexpected for a majority of writers. Third, writing prompts may stimulate a writer who may be blocked or unable to write by (temporarily) using prescribed or synthetic means. Lastly, and perhaps most commonly, writing exercises are pedagogical tools created by teachers to help students achieve certain valued outcomes or effects in their work, and these outcomes can be explicitly stated or implied by the nature of the prompt itself.
In the field of creative writing, writing exercises or prompts display real value by being one of many potential answers to the question, “can creative writing (creativity) be taught.” As indicated above, writing via prompts may teach writers a great deal about their own organic of natural writing processes by putting them into unnatural or unexpected situations. Through prompts, writing instructors can assist students with working through certain craft issues, and these generative or instructional assignments can often be built from comments that consistently occur during workshopping or to explore how to write certain effects observed during assigned reading. Writing prompts, then, can link the act of reading to the act of writing through the specific effects or outcomes they seek.
When developing writing prompts, it is not only important to think about intended learning outcomes or goals for writers, but also to consider the audience to whom the prompt is directed. For example, I use writing prompts differently in a creative writing classroom where grades are assigned than I do when working with a creative writing club that students attend by choice and for fun, no matter how serious the fun may get. The age level and experience of the writers in question can be a determining factor in how a writing prompt is structured and delivered. In a college creative writing classroom, I may place more emphasis on completing the prompt in exactly the way it is written. Whereas, with a group of junior high writers in a club, I may couch the prompt as guidelines that may be deviated from as the writer sees fit in order to follow their own creative impulses, especially if the goal of the prompt is to invent new writing. In summary, an instructor should articulate whether the prompt’s rules and prescription should be strictly followed or if they may be broken as the writer sees fit.
One of the differences between creative and expository writing prompts relates to genre. When developing creative writing prompts, I am much more inclined to omit genre prescriptions at the outset. When it comes to creative writing, especially for young writers, the prescriptions and limitations of a given genre can be an inhibitor to creativity or to generating new, innovative, or ground-breaking writing. The tents of an extant genre, too, can be plied to writing after the fact. For example, if a piece of writing seems to include a narrative, that aspect of the writing can be identified after it is generated and developed later on. In expository writing classes, I tend to create writing prompts or projects that specifically deal with working in a certain genre or that emphasize comparative learning by writing a genre in relation to one that is well-known (the five-paragraph essay, say).
When authoring a prompt, I use a three-part structure that includes the prompt itself (what is to be done), a rationale for the prompt that lists learning outcomes (why we’re doing it), and finally some considerations for later (what to do with the prompt to expand or revise it down the line). I include the last bit because I like to have students begin prompts during class time, which may not allow them time enough to fully complete the writing. It is also a way to indicate how to work with writing that is fragmented or incomplete (I often find myself with a limited amount of time to really get an idea on paper, and I am constantly in the position where I need to determine if these fragments are worth developing.)
It should be noted, finally, that I use the five canons of classical rhetoric to structure creative writing classes, so invention holds only slightly more weight during the term than style, arrangement, memory, and delivery. Because of this, I use what I call the meta-prompt at the end of the time during the semester or year when invention is winding down. This encourages students to start thinking about prompts not as something fixed by and received from teachers but as something that is in flux, timely, and that they can codify.
Here is a sample of a meta-prompt assignment that I used in a recent creative writing course I taught:
Devise a writing prompt using the format you have seen on the blog: Prompt–Rationale–For Later. Your prompt can be for pure invention, a technique for writing in a specific genre, or a part of creative writing craft or style issues that you feel you need work on. (Like exercising, the thing about creative writing that is the most troublesome for you is probably what you need to work on or do most often.)
I see two levels of creativity in creative writing: the level at which you are creative within a work you are making and the level of creativity about how to cause those works to come about in the first place. This prompt deals with the latter. I think it is important to be able to invent a project for yourself to do, a constraint, a challenge that breaks you out of the ruts and routines of your typical writing practice. This prompt is meant to start you thinking about how to do just that.
Once you have written and edited your prompt, e-mail it to me. I will compile the prompts here on the class web page, and you will asked to complete several of them that sound the most appealing as our class time turns to focus more on performing your work out loud, arranging multiple works in sequence, and delivering work for publication, both via journals and DIY book arts.