Whether you are new to creative writing or simply looking to refresh your practice, writing prompts are a great way to generate new ideas. Poets & Writers has nearly 2,000 writing prompts for poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in the free archive at The Time Is Now. Below we’ve chosen a handful of prompts that are perfect for creative writers just starting out, and for teachers and workshop leaders who want to inspire their students. Don’t be afraid to try a new genre or use a prompt intended for one genre as inspiration for a different genre. There are no limitations—the possibilities are endless—so get creative and start writing!
Flip through the dictionary and randomly choose ten words. Write a poem with each word in every other line.
Set a timer for five minutes and freewrite—writing anything that comes to mind without stopping until the timer goes off. Then circle every third word or phrase of what you’ve written. Use these circled words as the starting point for a poem.
Copy and Delete
Choose a favorite poem written by somebody else, type a copy of it, delete every other line from the poem, and write your own lines to replace those you’ve deleted. Next, delete the remaining lines from the old poem so that only your lines remain. Read what you have, and revise it, adding new lines to fill in the gaps.
Write an erasure poem: Rip out one or two pages from a magazine or newspaper. Read through them, underlining words and phrases that appeal to you and that relate to each other. Using a marker or Wite-Out, begin to delete the words around those you underlined, leaving words and phrases that you might want to use. Keep deleting the extra language, working to construct poetic lines with the words you’ve chosen to keep.
Eavesdropping on the World
Collect phrases from overheard conversations, radio broadcasts, TV shows, or magazine articles. When you have a quiet moment, read over your notes and pick one quote that sparks your imaginative impulses. Write a poem that uses the found quote as a first line. Explore your immediate reactions and emotions, allowing those feelings to develop the tone of the lines that follow.
Write a story based on the following line: “I have bad news for you. You’ve been kidnapped.” Be sure to incorporate the line into the dialogue of the story.
Follow Your Nose
Write a story that begins with a description of a distinct scent. Devote at least one paragraph to describing the smell, whether it’s the layered aroma of a well-cooked meal or something distressingly malodorous. Allow this opening description to lead you to a larger scene or a revelation about one of the story’s central characters.
Read the first paragraph of five of your favorite short stories, analyzing how they begin. Do they start with the description or voice of a character? With the description of a place or incident? With dialogue? Choose one of the beginnings and use it as a model for the entryway into a story of your own. See how far it takes you.
Newspapers are filled with compelling headlines that often include one or two people and describe the final outcome of an event: Man Jumps Off Bridge After Wedding, Woman Kidnapped as Baby Reunites With Family, Flight Attendant Receives Proposal Mid-flight. Read your local newspaper or peruse local newspapers online, and choose a headline. Use it to write a story about what led up to the final outcome the headline describes.
To a Friend
Writing with a specific reader in mind helps clarify a writer’s voice—we all know how to tell stories to our friends, and we all intuitively understand the points and details of the story that will interest them the most. Borrowing Jack Kerouac’s method from On the Road, write a fictional story in the form of a long letter to a friend. Choose someone you know well, but also be sure to choose a person who has no knowledge of the setting or plot of your story (so you don’t take any details for granted).
Creative Nonfiction Prompts
As the old story goes, Ernest Hemingway was once asked to write a six-word story about himself. This is how he responded: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Write a six-word memoir about yourself.
Choose an incident from your past—it could be an ordinary occurrence, such as a family dinner—or a significant event, such as an achievement or a mishap. Write about it from your perspective, then write about it from the perspective of someone else who experienced it with you—a friend, sibling, or parent.
Description and Speculation
Write for twenty minutes, without stopping, a piece of pure description about something you see (a person, a scene, or an object in the room). No dialogue, no metaphor, no emotion; just pure description, as detailed as possible. Then write, nonstop, for another twenty minutes about the same subject, but this time use only speculation—imagine the subject’s thoughts, perceptions, emotions, inner, or outward dialogue, etc.—and/or your own thoughts and observations about the subject. Combine the two pieces and see what kind of story comes to life.
Memory and Place
Like fiction, good nonfiction narratives are often driven by description of place. Think of a place that you know well—your kitchen, your office, or a spot you often visit—and, from memory, write a passage that describes that place. Focus on the physical characteristics of the space, leaving out any emotion that may be connected to it, and be as descriptive and detailed as possible. The next time you’re there, read your description and see how accurately your memory served you. Take note of the details you may have missed.
Use Your History
Research one of the decades during which you were a child. Make a list of the popular music at the time, the best-selling books, the favorite movies and celebrities. Then freewrite about the neighborhood where you lived—who were your neighbors? what was the living situation like? what was a typical day for you and the people around you? Finally, choose an event from your life or from history that happened during the time you’ve researched and write about it, using your research to inform and contextualize what you write.