Writing prompts and workouts

When you take a writing course at school or online, or join a writing workshop, you’re often assigned ‘writing prompts’. These are topics to briefly arouse your creativity, as practice. For example: Write about  going on a trek with a friend,  seeing someone off at the airport, the view (or room) where you usually write,  a recent puja you’ve attended,he unusual weather,  a sporting event, a good book you’ve read, or  how to make the perfect cup of chiya.

In my first creative writing class the initial prompt was “write about summer vacation.” Easy, I thought, and quickly dashed off an essay to hand in. A few days later the professor came to class with “the three most ‘exemplary’ essays” to discuss. From my front row seat I could see that mine was the third one in his hand. I was elated. If it was so exemplary, I thought, then I was well on my way to becoming ‘A Writer’. Wow!

The professor took half the period describing the good points of the first essay, and the rest of class extolling the virtues of the second. Both were commendably good writing, no doubt. And then, finally, but with only seconds to go before the end of class, he held up the third essay (mine) and said (to my chagrin): “Now for the opposite extreme!” At the bell I shot out the door, embarrassed and dispirited.

The next day in his office I was relieved to hear that I could stay in the class regardless of that pitiful first essay. If anybody needed to learn how to write, he said, it was me. The professor must have seen some potential in me. With his guidance I learned how to write and finished the term with high marks.

Over the years, I’ve written many ‘writing prompt’ essays. In one writers’ workshop, for example, we students were allowed 20 minutes to respond to each prompt, then we would read our essay aloud and listen patiently as the other students voiced their opinions. They tried to be positive, first pointing out some strong point then giving suggestions on how our work might be improved. The critiques covered beginnings and endings, structure, form, tone, voice, grammar, and the like. Each peer review helped us focus our talent.

I recently found a unique set of prompts for writers to use purely for self-improvement and awareness. This set is different from the norm, far more personal. It’s designed to encourage self-judgment and critique without the usual peer review or professional criticism. It is from ‘Writing Time’, a popular online writer’s blog by Barbara Abercrombie. Barbara teaches writing and has published novels, children’s books, a memoir and personal essays. She calls her list of prompts a ‘Writing Workout’. The first one is simply good practice. After that they’re more interesting, and the last one is a serious challenge:

1. Go through whatever you’re writing and question every adjective and adverb. Get rid of all that aren’t necessary.

2. Brainstorm for five minutes on paper about writing rituals of your own. What makes you happy? Fresh flowers? Heavy metal music? Burning incense? A coffee pot on your desk? A hard run before you sit down to write? Whatever it is, discover it and do it.

3. On your calendar, write down the time you’re going to write and for how long. You would not blow off a doctor’s appointment on your calendar; treat your writing time with the same respect.

4. If you don’t keep a journal or diary or notebook, or have a big envelope full of notes on your thoughts and experiences and feelings – start doing it now. And if you do keep a journal, etc., you might also get a small notebook to carry around in your pocket or bag.

5. Write the narrative of your life in five minutes.
Thanks Barbara. Now, writers, it’s your turn.
 Good writing!