Why Creative Writing Prompts Work? Working Creatively Inside the Box

Rachel Richey Letters From The Editor

Many writers feel that using a writing prompt is a waste of time. They lump them into the same category of the dreaded high school writing exercise, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”.

You’ll never know everything about anything, especially about something you love.Julia Child

Recently, I read a blog post in which the author proudly proclaimed their hatred of the prompt. They implied that a prompt is simply a learning tool, and that if you’re a real writer, then you shouldn’t need it, because you already know how to write. I see a couple of things wrong with this idea. First, it’s foolish to ever think that you know all you will ever need to know about any given field. People should always be learning, growing, and honing their craft.

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.T.S. Elliot
Second, I think that they’re missing out on the bigger picture. Writing prompts are not simply tools used only by beginning writers who can’t come up with their own ideas. They’re about expanding creative problem-solving skills. Working under limitations forces innovation. And that’s what a good writing prompt does. It forces you to work with what you’re given and not necessarily with what you would have chosen.

It seems counterintuitive to say that limitation makes people more creative. Haven’t we always been taught that true creatives “think outside the box” and “color outside the lines”? Restricting the creative process is death for a project, right?

Except that there are countless real-life examples that show the exact opposite. Take Green Eggs and Ham, for instance. Dr. Seuss wrote the story after his editor challenged him to write a book using 50 words or less. Forced to work under these tight restrictions, he created one of his most beloved works. Or, look at Twitter. Here, with a limit of 140 characters, tweeters are always finding new ways to express themselves. Have you ever seen a micro-recipe? Or checked out @VeryShortStory, a tweeter who composes complete stories with every tweet? Or maybe you might have seen “The Longest Poem in the World”, which pulls real tweets together in order to create a rhyming poem. People are rising to the challenge and pushing the limits of their boundaries in new and creative ways.

One of my favorite examples is artist Phil Hansen. When faced with a debilitating physical limitation, he had to learn how to create art in a whole new way. He explains it best in his TED Talk on the subject.

Why does this happen? Why are people sometimes more creative when faced with limitations? The answer to that might be a little tricky, but I think it comes down to a few different things.

First off, taking away an excess of choice gives you more time to concentrate on the problem at hand. Instead of wasting time considering thousands of possible options, you can focus on the limited choices that you’re allowed and how you can use them in the most effective way.

Taking away extra choices can also help writers avoid decision paralysis. When you have an endless amount of possibilities, it’s easy to over-think and over-analyze each decision you make. The end result often is that you find you can’t make a decision at all.

And finally, working within limits can force you to work outside of your comfort zone. When given the option, many people play it safe and stick with the genres, styles, and characters that they’re familiar with. It’s easy, but it doesn’t force growth. Growth can be painful, but it’s absolutely necessary in order for you to reach the next level of your art. If you are forced into a box, then you are forced to look at problems in a new way and use tools that you may never have even considered using before.

Are writing prompts for everyone? Probably not, but I do think that they can be a valuable tool if approached with an open mind and a willing heart.

Talk to us. How do you feel about writing prompts?
About the Author

Rachel Richey

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As an avid reader and a lover of story crafting, Rachel started Literative.com as a way to motivate and connect authors to tell their stories (and the literary community at large). Her favorite part of Literative is discovering the talent that shows up in our creative writing contests.