Write a poem that begins with a description of a photograph you have in your possession. Delve into the memories evoked by the photograph, or reveal what personal significance the photograph has for you. For inspiration, read Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson.”
Writing Prompts & Exercises
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers three new and original writing prompts each week to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also curate a list of essential books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend for guidance and inspiration. Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block, looking for a fresh topic, or just starting to write, our archive of writing prompts has what you need. Need a starter pack? Check out our Writing Prompts for Beginners.
Get immediate access to more than 1,800 writing prompts with the tool below:
Writing fiction in the first-person plural is notoriously tricky. Challenge yourself to write a short story—or a section of a short story—from the first-person plural. Read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” for insight on how a collective narrator can enhance a story and/or produce unexpected effects.
In a 2008 Paris Review interview with Kay Ryan, she explains her neologism “recombinant rhyme”—a craft technique of stashing “rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middle.” According to Ryan, “snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem” allows her to “get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.” Take a poem of yours that could use more musicality, and revise it to include recombinant rhyme.
The erasure is a poetic form created by obscuring words and phrases from an existing text and using those that remain to construct a poem. Apply the erasure to an essay. Make a copy of three or four pages of your favorite essay. Then, using a black marker or Wite-out, compose a short lyric essay by selecting certain words on the pages and erasing the rest.
Write a nonfiction piece of no more than 500 words. It could be anything from a single scene to a complete micro essay—either way, try to utilize the same techniques and structure that you would for a full-length piece. For inspiration, check out Brevity, an online journal dedicated to the art of flash nonfiction.
Write a story in which the protagonist is "perfectly ordinary" (however you choose to define "ordinary") in every way except for one obvious trait. Follow how this one trait sets in motion the story’s central conflict or turn.
Choose one of your poems that needs revision. Give it to five friends and ask each of them to create an audio version of it by reading it into your telephone answering machine or recording themselves reading it and sending you the audio file. Listen to the five audio versions for places where the rhythm or musical qualities of the poem fall away or sound flat. Use these readings to revise the poem.
Research the news for an event or incident that occured during your life or during the life of a close relative. It could be an historic sports event involving your home team, a crime that happened in your town or city, or something else that had a significant effect on the people nearby, such as the building of a major bridge or highway. Write an essay about this event, blending it with anecdotes from your (or your relative's) life that took place during the same time the event occured. Use the personal to elucidate the historic and vice versa.
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.
Poet Wayne Miller once compared reading a poem in translation to “watching a film with the sound turned down.” Find two or more English translations of a poem originally written in a foreign language with which you’re not familiar. Compare the translations, and try to “re-translate” the original poem based on the various English translations you’ve read.
Write an essay about a small part of the country or the world with which you are intimately familiar. Focus first on the landscape, wildlife, and architecture: What flora and fauna are native to the area? What do the houses and centers of town look like? Then introduce the people: What do they look like? What do they do for a living? Incorporate dialogue into this section, including words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are specific to the area. Using as much detail as possible, bring the place and its language to life.
Last week the New Yorker’s fiction department serial tweeted Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box,” which appears in the magazine’s science fiction issue. Egan structured her story in prose bursts of 140 characters or fewer—the limit for a single tweet. Challenge yourself to write a story that could appear in small installments by shortening the length of the story’s paragraphs to one or two sentences. Try to advance the story with each terse paragraph.
Write a poem in which you give the reader directions about how to assemble an object or an emotional experience. Think of the various sensory stimuli your directions provide and experiment with the order of the lines. For inspiration, read Matthea Harvey’s poem “Setting the Table.”
In Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994), Anne Lamott's classic instructional treatise on writing and life, the author says: "Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can't—and, in fact, you're not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing." Keeping this in mind, write the beginnings of an essay whose direction and ending you don't yet know. Start small, focusing closely on a single place, person, or incident, without thinking ahead. Then keep going: Allow the writing to tell the story, and see what develops.
Think of a dramatic situation in which there is one main character. If you need to, steal a situtation from the news, such as "Man Dangles Child Over River" or "Woman Follows Couple Home From Mall." Based on this situation, write a sketch of the main character that explains how and why this person did what they did. What is it about his or her personality, past, and relationships that has brought him or her to this moment?
An ekphrasis is a poem about, describing, or inspired by, a piece of art. Rather than writing a poem based on a piece of art, try writing a poem inspired by an existing ekphrasis.
Write about the moment that everything changed. For inspiration, check out Smith Magazine's The Moment (Harper Perennial, 2012), a collection of personal essays about the key experience—"a moment of opportunity, serendipity, calamity, or chaos"—in each of the author's lives, whose effect was revelatory, profound, and life-changing.
Write a story where nothing takes place outside of one small room. You can describe the interior of the room, but refrain from describing anything outside of it. Take note of how this restriction forces you to rely on certain techniques of storytelling.
Revisit a poem of yours that is longer than one page. Try rewriting the poem by condensing it to ten lines or fewer. Cut and rearrange lines from the original poem, or write a completely new one that gives fresh attention to an evocative image or line from the original.
Choose a topic that interests you—it could be an animal, a scientific process, or a historical event, for example—and research it. Next, think of an unrelated experience from your life—a particularly memorable moment from childhood, perhaps, or when a loved one passed away—and write an essay on the two subjects. Alternate between short paragraphs of factual reportage on the topic and brief, more lyrical vignettes about the remembered experience, with the end goal of finding a way to relate the two.
Pick an overlooked, everyday object—a scarf, a carton of strawberries, a snow globe—and write eight different scenes or vignettes in which that object appears centrally. Have each scene take place in a different location and have the characters interact with the object in various ways.
Make a list of commonly used phrases or idioms (e.g. “don't let the cat out of the bag,” “beat a dead horse,” “no strings attached”). Choose one or two and examine them closely, particularly their literal meaning. Write a poem in which at least one line attempts to reveal the strangeness of a commonly used idiom. Read Dora Malech’s “Love Poem” for inspiration.
In Cheryl Strayed's new memoir, Wild (Knopf, 2012), the author recounts her months-long hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that she took entirely alone after life as she'd known it had fallen apart. "It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along," she says, "one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been." Write about a time when you got a little wild—when you embarked upon something new and challenging, maybe something frightening, or maybe even a little dangerous. Write about the wilderness itself, but also about what brought you there, and who you had become by the time you walked back out of the woods.
Write a piece of flash fiction or a short story that starts with an advice column. Use the advice column to introduce the story's protagonist, the central drama, or the back story of the characters. Alternatively, read through advice columns such as the Rumpus's Dear Sugar and Salon's Since You Asked and create a story based on the problem posed by one advice-seeker.
A cento, Latin for "patchwork," is a poem composed entirely of fragments and lines taken from other poems and/or written sources. Try creating your own patchwork poem by incorporating lines from various poems in a poetry anthology. For inspiration, read David Lehman's cento in the New York Times.