Beware the Writing Prompt

Ah, the writer’s favorite time wasting technique. The perfect way to dodge progress: writing prompts. We own books filled with them, join message boards where we chomp at the bit waiting for the next one to be posted, some of us even take the Writing Excuses guys seriously when they prompt us to “write a story in which you kill Sauron in every chapter.”

We convince ourselves that we are bettering our craft. Practice makes perfect, right? Although practice does indeed lead to something like perfection there comes a point when you have to pull off your warm-up gear and step out onto the pitch (sorry, soccer reference, for the many Americans in the group, that’s what the Brits call a soccer field).

Now, let me point out that I do indeed realize that different people write for different reasons. Some write just to be heard, others write for the joy of it, fanfic folk frequently flock to their forums (I sooooo could not miss out on that alliteration) because they want to continue journeys, whereas I, and I’m guessing most of you have this same motivation, want to see my name in print, to share my thoughts and words with as many people as possible. I want to bring about some form of change in the reader, in the world. Many of these snarky rants are directed at those who think as I do, so if that’s not you I suggest you stop reading this because I’m probably going to offend you.

Consider yourself warned.

Of course, there are different kinds of prompts. For instance, when they come from me, they are obviously of great literary value . . . . Anyone buying that? Alright, seriously, when I propose a writing prompt I am more or less offering up a different way of looking at something. I’m usually trying to understand my characters better, often in a piece that I may have stalled out on. I don’t necessarily intend for them to be done, I just want you to look at something of your own in a different way. The trouble with many writing prompts is that they have nothing to do with your current work in progress (WIP).

Let’s look at some from “A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves. (I tend to read these in an airy voice that floats on wisps of marijuana smoke, incents and the romantic memories of flower covered hills in springtime)

  • January 1: Write about Sunday afternoon.
  • February 15: Write about a brief encounter.
  • April 9: You’re asleep. You’re not at home.
  • May 24: Write about something you see every day.

I’ll stop there. What in the world do those prompts have to do with our goal of getting published? They’re just an excuse to write. But those are just the prompts, right? The rest of the book must be filled with great information on “how” to write, riiiiight? Not so far as I can tell. The entire book seems dedicated to this fluffy bunny crap.

“What’s the big deal, David? Like you said, it’s just practice.”

No, it’s a distraction. In fact, it is an entire year of your life dedicated to distraction if you follow this book. Add it up, the time spent checking the forum or reading Judy’s musings before you start your prompt, add the writing of the prompt itself, and then, more than likely, if you submit it somewhere for others to read, you’ll go back and edit it before you post. How much of your WIP could you have finished in that time? How much could have been edited? How many markets could have been researched?

It’s an excuse to avoid your WIP. It’s “I’ll get started on my story just as soon as I finish this writing prompt.” And then the next day, it’s the same thing. We only have so much time in a day. If we spend our best hours cranking out pieces on what we did on Sunday, or how we felt when we slept someplace that wasn’t home, our real writing, that world changing stuff that we want to get done, doesn’t get done. Or worst, it’s weakened because we’ve already used so many good words on describing something we see everyday.

I mean, seriously, how many collections of writing prompts do your favorite authors put out? Have you ever heard of any of them actually using them? The Writing Excuses guys offer them every week, and they’re often nonsensical. I’d venture to guess that they don’t take them seriously because they don’t expect us to take them seriously. Real writers put out collections of short stories, not collections of “What I did on Sunday” (unless it’s a collection of Tuesdays with a guy named Morrie but of course not even that is a collection of Tuesdays).

The point here is, real writers write. If you went into work every day and told your boss that before you could actually start working you had to practice working first, he’d fire your ass. More than likely, when you got that job, you didn’t know what you were doing. Most of us go through “on the job training” because we learn best by doing. So spend your practice time actually doing as opposed to practicing it. Or as one of my professors once put it, “Those who talk about doing, often don’t. Those who do, simply do.”

Now then, your writing prompt for today is: Write a story in which a character finds the meaning of life through a series of writing prompts.  


DeAnna said...

Wow, thank you so much for this, David. I never saw writing prompts as "distractions" before, but really, it's true. I know I am guilty of this, and maybe others are too: I have used random prompts as an excuse to AVOID my WIP. At least I'm writing, right? So I'm still a "writer" if I do prompts? :-P The only way I can see prompts as beneficial would be if distracting yourself for a bit from your WIP allows you to avoid burnout. But if you're using them to avoid your WIP, then there's a problem. Really, it's about being honest with yourself and making yourself progress.

Mer said...

David, I enjoyed this "rant" tremendously. I've been using writing prompts for a couple of years now--and you are absotively posilutely right--they are a time drain and also a creative energy drain (at times) and definitely a way to avoid the MAIN EVENT......until I fine-tuned the concept.

A few months ago, I began using them as a method to work through rough patches in my novel.....this way I use the prompt to lead into the REAL story....and sometimes they have been good enough stuff to incorporate into the story...but even when they aren't, they ultimately become a way to develop a character, embroider the genius loci (as important to me as any human character)or even try out a plot change....For *Me*, these sort of non-random prompts have become an invaluable tool.

Just another POV........ =D

Anonymous said...

I hate writing prompts with a burning passion of a thousand suns.

David Noceti said...

@DeAnna: Yeah, I'm guilty of it too. I mean, where do you think I got that book full of writing prompts. :) I also think that they are a way to get immediate feedback and fandom if we are a part of a forum when we do them. After all, part of the drive to write is to share, and if we're always hording things because we're trying to get them published, then we don't get to share. Still, they are something to be weary of.

@Mer: NO! Only my opinions can be expressed on this blog. Mine Mine MINE! Kidding. I'm glad you chimed in. I was honestly thinking, "oooooooh, I don't know if I should post this. It might offend Mer." But I see that you are in good humor as you often are. :) You're going to have to tell me more about this secret ninja skill of adapting prompts into productivity. I want examples. Because as you should know, I'm always open to knew things and never set my beliefs in stone . . . on most things.

@damihjva: Damn, that's a whole lot of passion. So have you completed today's writing prompt yet? :oP

Anonymous said...

Yes I did. It goes something like this:

Dave stared in disbelief at the writing prompt.

He'd worked so hard to get to the end of "365 Days of Time-Suck for Writers, Because, Hey ... It's Good Practice", his single purpose to unlock the magical key promised to make him a writer.

And now, after faithful adherence to Lizelle Barratry's self-proclaimed system of success, (the author touts over seven obscure, but published titles after all), he'd wasted over a year of his writing life, ruminating over banal topics such as, his grandfather's ear-hair and what a public bus smells like.

And for what? After a year, the only thing he could brag about was that he had 364 word documents, containing observations about the odd, the mundane, the irrelevant. Bits of his novel, however, remained dormant in his hard drive, untouched.

He chewed another nail down to the quick as he read the prompt again:

"A year has passed and you're still not published. Write about your feelings."

Somehow, he had nothing to say.

:p I know, I'm a smart ass.

Seriously, though, you have made great points in this blog, especially about trap of prompts being "good practice." It's equivalent to the "fluffy bunny" writers you mentioned a few months back, where everyone is nice and holds hands, singing Kum Ba Yah instead of being honest with one another in order to improve. Ugh, useless.

Again, great post!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you've been on the receiving end of some pretty ropy prompts. I find it hard to be too negative on the subject of prompts because a writing exercise from a book led to my first every story to be accepted for publication. Pretty much everything I've ever written started life as a prompt, or far more commonly, a dare.

For me, their role is right at the concept stage rather than the middle of a story. By the middle of the story I would expect the characters to be driving the plot themselves.

I can see that they would be a huge distraction if you are writing a novel, but I love them for short stories.

David Noceti said...

damihjva, you crack me up.

@rosa: You bring up a very good point, and that is: when during the writing process we choose to take on the prompts. I have to admit to being rather fond of one of my shorts that was born of a prompt. I just want folks to be weary of getting carried away with them and letting them become excuses to not get real progress done. I'll be interrogating Mer in order to find out her secret about tying the prompts into her current work. :)

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