Friday, October 26, 2012

7 Reasons to Use Writing Prompts--by Gabriela Pereira

by Gabriela Pereira, @DIYMFA

Some writers love doing prompts. They sit in writing classes, pencils poised to start writing the moment the teacher gives an assignment. And when time is up, they shoot their hands into the air, waving madly to get the teacher's attention so they can read aloud what they wrote.

Other writers--like me, for instance--would rather tap-dance on an alligator's nose.

Who needs prompts? They're the writing equivalent of eating your vegetables, not so much fun but good for you. They also get in the way. Just like the veggies that fill you up and leave no room for dessert, prompts take up time you could be using to write something that really matters, like your novel.

The truth is, writing prompts might be about as appealing to you as soggy brussels sprouts but they do serve a purpose. Seven, in fact. Here a few good reasons why you should use prompts in your writing.

1) Lower Stakes, Higher Output

When we work on a project that we care about, the stakes are high. We want to produce something worthy of this amazing idea so we put all sorts of pressure on ourselves. This kind of pressure can actually decrease our ability to write, sometimes leading to full-blown writer's block. Instead, if we warm up with an exercise, there's little pressure and mistakes are expected so we're less likely to get performance anxiety.

2) Boost Your Confidence

Most of the time when you write from a prompt, you go into it knowing that the writing will be awful. Then you reread what you wrote and discover a handful of gems buried in the garble. Suddenly your writing isn't quite as hopeless as you thought. If you go into a writing session expecting the result to be truly horrible, then it's a pleasant surprise when what you get is not so bad. Writing prompts can help you set those first-draft expectations extra-low.

3) Less Attachment, More Room for Improvement

Prompts are usually "throw-away" writing. You're just warming up, you're not writing for real. This means that whatever you produce is not going to be as dear to your heart as that turn of phrase in your work-in-progress that you agonized over for the last two hours. The more darling something is to you, the harder it will be for you to kill it. If, on the other hand, you're revising something you just tossed on the page during a ten-minute exercise, you'll be much more open to making broad, sweeping changes. Who cares if you have to rewrite it? It's just an exercise.

4) Learn to Think "On the Fly"

Want to learn how to write on demand? Here's a secret no one tells you: creativity has nothing to do with being a "creative person," it's all about practice. Forget being inspired by the muse, if you want to be creative you have to build discipline. The more you train your brain to produce ideas and throw them on the page, the better at it you will get. And the best way to practice is by doing prompts.

5) Hone Your Craft

Is there a particular writing technique that has you stumped? Rather than trying to learn it as you work on your novel, do a practice run (or two, or ten) using writing prompts. Is point of view confusing ? Write the same prompt using different points of view until you get it straight. Need practice writing dialogue? Choose a couple of prompts and write all of them with nothing but dialogue. Use a prompt as a low-pressure testing ground, where you can try out techniques without fear of failure.

6) Try Something Wild

Prompts are a great way to get the crazies out of your system. You can use prompts as a forum for trying ideas that might seem out of place in your work-in-progress. I've done this many times with my own characters, letting them go nuts in a writing prompt, then dialing it back and channeling that prompt into something I can actually use in my novel or short story. Use prompts to try ideas on for size or to let your characters do something that might seem wildly out-of-character.

Use prompts to write freely and see where it leads. In the end, you'll probably find something of value buried amid the crazy and you'll be able to extract it and mold it into something that you can use. This is a great way to test your characters' boundaries and see how far you can push them until they break, and it can be less intimidating to try something wild in the low-pressure environment of an exercise than to try it in your novel or story.

7) Think on Paper

The other day I was scribbling in my notebook when someone asked me what I was writing. I replied with: "I'm not writing, I'm thinking." Thinking on paper can be far more effective than thinking in your head. For starters, thinking on paper engages more senses: you see the words and doodles on the page, feel your hand holding the pen and forming the words, even hear the words in your mind as you write them.

Why is sensory input important? First, associating these sensory stimuli with writing will help you be more productive and make you better able to get creative on demand. Also the more senses you use to process your ideas, the more likely you will be to come up with creative new ideas or solutions. By engaging as many senses as possible in your creative process, you can increase your creative output. Thinking on paper is a great way to do this.

And guess what? Writing prompts are a great way to learn how to think on paper.

Build prompts into your writing routine.

Not sure where to find them? Don't worry, there's a app for that. Check out the Writer Igniter at DIY MFA for a nearly endless supply of story prompts and ideas.

Gabriela Pereira is the Creative Director at DIY MFA, the do-it-yourself alternative to a master's degree in writing. She develops tools and techniques for the serious writer, to help you get the knowledge without the college. With an MFA in creative writing, Gabriela is also a freelance writing teacher, and has led workshops throughout New York City via writing programs like: 826NYC, East Harlem Tutorial Program and Everybody Wins. When she's not working on DIY MFA, she loves writing middle grade and teen fiction, with a few short stories for "grown-ups" thrown in for good measure.