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.

Tuesdays: Poetry prompts
Wednesdays: Fiction prompts
Thursdays: Creative nonfiction prompts

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12.15.22

“Writers often talk about stakes, and they mostly mean the stakes within the piece: what’s at stake for the protagonist, whether fictional or not. Yet for me, the stakes that matter most—the stakes that shape the work profoundly—are those the author faces while writing,” writes Joy Castro, founding editor of the Machete series published by Ohio State University Press, in a recent installment of our Agents & Editors Recommend series. Castro encourages writers to take “bold, huge, scary risks” and “trust that your readers are as intelligent and soulful as you are.” Inspired by Castro’s advice, write an essay that considers your relationship to risk in life and your creative work. Do you take leaps or keep your feet on the ground?

12.14.22

In the preface to Whorephobia: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life, an anthology of essays and interviews published by Seven Stories Press, editor Lizzie Borden writes about her experiences as a young filmmaker in the late 1970s and early 1980s in downtown New York when she worked at a brothel to support her art. Borden writes: “My way of justifying working at the brothel was to tell myself it was part of what I considered my ‘real work’ of writing and directing, so I always went to work armed with a tape recorder.” Years later Borden would run into old friends on the street who worked with her at the brothel and exchange coded looks that, as she writes, were a result of their “internalized societal whorephobia.” Write a story in which tensions rise when two characters decide to keep a secret. Try to paint a picture of the before and after of these characters’ lives and how the secret forever connects them.

12.13.22

“I first started writing poetry (and still write it) because the world, its people, and their ideas are wrong, insane, immoral, flawed, or unimaginably terrible. I write because I feel wrong, sad, crazy, disappointed, disappointing, and unimaginably terrible,” writes Rachel Zucker in “The Poetics of Wrongness, an Unapologia,” the first in a series of lectures delivered for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series in 2016 and collected in The Poetics of Wrongness, forthcoming in February from Wave Books. In the form of an unapologia, a reversal of the traditional apologia form that typically consists of a defense of one’s own opinions and actions, Zucker posits that “wrongness” is intrinsic to writing poetry and that poetry asserts “with its most defining formal device—the line break—that the margins of prose are wrong, or—with its attention to diction—that the ways in which we’ve come to understand and use words [is] wrong.” Write a poem in the form of an unapologia. Identify when you have been wrong in the past, and try not to defend yourself. Instead, speak through your feelings of wrongness.

12.8.22

Each year Oxford Languages names a Word of the Year that reflects the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months” based on thorough analysis of statistics and data, but for the first time this year’s choice was open to a public vote. More than 300,000 people cast their vote and the overwhelming winner is “goblin mode,” a slang term defined as “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” Write an essay about a time you have gone into “goblin mode.” Was the period of unapologetic behavior necessary for you to recharge?

12.7.22

What is the relationship between good art and bad behavior? In the essay “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” published in the Paris Review in 2017, Claire Dederer breaks down the mixed feelings she has when enjoying the art of abusive men, including her experience watching the films of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Using anecdotes from conversations with friends, Dederer also reflects on her own sense of “monstrosity” as a writer. “A book is made of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people,” she writes. Inspired by this moral quandary, write a story from the perspective of a writer considering their own monstrousness.

12.6.22

“It was all so different than he expected,” writes Henri Cole in his poem “At Sixty-Five,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. Written on Cole’s birthday, the third-person perspective of the poem offers a distance from the poet and his life. The details in the series of observations create a portrait of a fully lived life with accomplishments and opinions: “Yes, he wore his pants looser. / No, he didn’t do crosswords in bed. / No, he didn’t file for Social Security,” writes Cole. Write a poem that focuses on what your age means to you. What details will you include to make this self-reflection unique?

12.1.22

In “Finding Comfort and Escape in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” published on Literary Hub, A. Cerisse Cohen writes about the impact the iconic cookbook had on her relationship with cooking during the pandemic when she moved from New York City to Missoula, Montana. Cohen not only discovers that “bad food is often the result of impatience,” but also finds a transformational lesson behind the patient, careful labor behind Hazan’s dishes indicating to her the many ways through which people take care of one another. Write an essay about your relationship to cooking and the impact it has had on other aspects of your life. Are there lessons you’ve learned from preparing an ambitious dish?

11.30.22

As November ends and December begins, decorations make their appearance on storefronts, front lawns, stoops, and avenues while classic tunes play over loudspeakers marking the start of the holiday season. While some get into the holiday spirit early, others start lamenting the packed department stores, crowded city streets, and nonstop cheer. Inspired by the “most wonderful time of the year,” write a story in which a character is tormented by the start of the holiday season. Do all the twinkling lights and festivities bring about bitter memories?

11.29.22

“And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / In September or October,” writes Seamus Heaney in his poem “Postscript,” which describes in detail an Irish county that the speaker recommends the addressee visit. The poem uses deep observation to create an all-encompassing description of this craggy coastline’s geographic features and fauna along the Wild Atlantic Way. “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,” writes Heaney. This week, think back to a natural landscape that has made a lasting impression on you and write a poem addressed to a loved one that describes this unique terrain’s lasting beauty.

11.24.22

In “Ten Ways of Being in the Weeds With Your Novel, and Ten Ways Out,” the latest installment of our Craft Capsule series, Blake Sanz writes the essay in second-person, addressing the many struggles and frustrations one can encounter when drafting a piece of writing. “You’ve pulled out a minor character and decided that the whole story should be told from her point of view. You’ve begun to write it that way, only to discover that this idea doesn’t work either,” he writes. Inspired by Sanz’s journey, write an essay that takes the reader through the challenges you faced in drafting a work of your own. What discoveries did you make, small and large, as you moved through versions of this piece?

11.23.22

November is National Novel Writing Month, and as many continue to draft their novels, some may be looking for inspiration to make it through these final days. Throughout the month, the nonprofit NaNoWriMo has been sharing videos from AuthorTubers with helpful tips including a video from Rachel of Rachel Writes offering ways to help overcome perfectionism during writing sessions. This week, as a writing exercise, take a cue from these tips and try a series of short writing sprints. Over the course of a week, set a timer for five-minute sessions. Try to see if each session builds upon the last one in hopes of completing a short story or a chapter of your novel.

11.22.22

“I write for my people. I write because we children of the lash-scarred, rope-choked, bullet-ridden, desecrated are still here standing. I write for the field holler, the shout, the growl, the singer, the signer, and the signified,” says Imani Perry in her moving acceptance speech for the 2022 National Book Award in nonfiction for her book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (Ecco, 2022). In her powerful message, Perry repeats the refrain “I write” as she lists the many reasons that lead her to the page. Inspired by Perry’s acceptance speech, write a poem that lists what drives you to write, including the people, languages, and beliefs that move you.

11.17.22

In the opening pages of Hilton Als’s memoir My Pinup: A Paean to Prince (New Directions, 2022), the Pulitzer Prize–winning author reflects upon a confessional joke in Jamie Foxx’s 2002 stand-up special, I Might Need Security, in which the comic meets the iconic musician Prince for the first time and is so overcome that he can’t look him in the eye. “Being enthralled—or, more accurately, frightened and turned on by Prince and what his various looks said about an aspect of black male sexuality—was that something only comedians could talk about?” writes Als. Inspired by this reflection, write a personal essay about an encounter with an icon who shifted something within yourself. What excited or frightened you?

11.16.22

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry, Finding Me by Viola Davis, and Surrender by Bono are just a few recent high-profile celebrity memoirs on many must-read lists. For some celebrities, writing a memoir is one way to reclaim their story and separate themselves from their public persona. This week, write a short story in the voice of a famous person who feels the need to write a memoir. What secrets are they willing to share, and which do they keep for themselves?

11.15.22

Where are you from / is a question I field too much. Once / I said Vietnam and the white man said I fought there. / I loved the country. I love their people. / That’s the day I started to lie / about my birth,” writes Kien Lam in his poem “Lunar Mansions,” published in the May/June 2018 issue of the American Poetry Review, in which he recounts the apocryphal story of his birth. Lam weaves in the story of the birth of Jesus, often conflating it with his own: “In the stable / the horses kicked me from their wombs,” he writes. Write a poem that tells the apocryphal story of your birth incorporating, as Lam does, a fantastical tone.

11.10.22

“How to choose // persimmons. This is precision. / Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted. / Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one / will be fragrant. How to eat: / put the knife away, lay down newspaper. / Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat,” writes Li-Young Lee in his evocative poem “Persimmons,” in which he uses the autumnal fruit as a way to speak on a number of personal subjects, such as his memories of a sixth grade teacher, his relationship with his wife, and his father’s blindness. Inspired by Lee’s poem, write a lyric essay about a favorite fruit that conjures sensorial memories. Let yourself be surprised by the direction of your associations.

11.9.22

Over the weekend, many of us, perhaps reluctantly, turned our clocks back an hour, ending Daylight Saving Time for the year. Dating back to World War I when countries needed a way to preserve power and fuel, the yearly change begins in the spring with clocks being pushed forward an hour to conserve daylight leading to longer days and shorter nights, then in the fall pushed back for longer nights and shorter days. Write a story that takes place during the end of Daylight Saving Time. How does the lengthening of darkness affect the mindset of your character?

11.8.22

“I think one of the civic responsibilities of poets in America today is to continue to encourage a sense of civility among us and a sense of curiosity about one another’s lives,” says Naomi Shihab Nye in a conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera and Jane Hirshfield at the 2015 National Book Festival captured on video by the Academy of American Poets. What do you feel is one of your responsibilities as a writer? Write a poem that answers this question by considering timely issues—whether global or personal—that fuel your passion for writing.

11.3.22

The Day of the Dead holiday is traditionally celebrated on the first two days of November, a time for families to remember and honor their dearly departed. The festivities have increasingly become more global but date back to the eleventh century and hold great significance for Mexico’s Indigenous communities. Public places and homes are filled with altars and offerings to commemorate loved ones with their favorite things, including traditional dishes and treats as well as elaborate decorations. Inspired by the celebratory spirit of the Day of the Dead, write an essay that explores how you remember your ancestors. Does this holiday reframe your understanding of grief and loss?

11.2.22

In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, autumn means catching the colorful, vibrant, and fleeting fall foliage, prompting many to take in the majestic display. Resources like the Smoky Mountain National Park’s Fall Foliage Prediction Map can help travelers locate areas in the United States where leaves are starting to change color, are at their peak, or past peak. Using this map as research, write a story in which your protagonist ventures out to a region where the leaves have changed their color. How does this bright, dramatic scenery affect your character’s mood and choices?

11.1.22

In his poem “Magritte Dancing,” Gerald Stern captures the frustration of struggling to fall asleep while paying close attention to the rhythms of his body and passing thoughts. Stern builds the scene by beginning with the mundane: “Every night I have to go to bed twice, / once by myself, suddenly tired and angry.” Then he turns to the passionate intensity of memory and the surreal: “I look at the morning with relief, with something close / to pleasure that I still have one more day, / and I dance the dance of brotherliness and courtliness.” Inspired by the award-winning poet, who died last Thursday at the age of ninety-seven, write a poem about falling asleep. Try to combine reality with the surreal as you toe the line between waking and dreaming.

10.27.22

“Once you know what a book contains, why read it again? Because literature is not information. It’s an atmosphere, a location, a space, a landscape you can enter, with its own weather and light that can be found nowhere else,” writes Sofia Samatar in a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series. Samatar argues for rereading favorite books and discovering in the experience why readers continue to return. She writes: “Every piece of writing calls a particular world into being, an environment through which a reader moves.” Pick a favorite text, whether a single essay or a whole book, and take notes on your feelings as you reread it. Then write an essay using these notes that reflects on this experience of rediscovery.

10.26.22

Over the past few weeks, some climate activists have taken up controversial methods of protest by pelting iconic paintings, such as Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Claude Monet’s “Haystacks,” with mashed potatoes and tomato soup. The protests were recorded and posted on social media by activists in Germany and the United Kingdom to help draw attention to concerns of the ongoing climate catastrophe and its effects on future generations. This week, write a story from the perspective of someone who plans and performs a public protest inside a museum. What work of art helps represent their message?

10.25.22

Is it possible to achieve mastery of an art form? In Carl Phillips’s essay “What We Are Carrying: Meditations on a Writing Practice,” excerpted from his book My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations From a Life in Writing (Yale University Press, 2022) and published in the November/December 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, he argues that “the relationship—between two people, between art and maker—is symbiotic and organic, ever changing, on both sides” therefore it is the commitment to writing that outweighs any idea of mastering it. Drawing from various practices such as learning to speak Italian and playing the clarinet, Phillips writes about the importance of “useful mistakes” and how revision reveals the ways in which a poem is a map, “not a way of getting somewhere, but a record of having been lost.” Keeping Phillips’s essay in mind, write a poem with the intention of getting lost in the writing process. Let your imagination guide you toward surprise.

10.20.22

In his essay “How to Pass the Time on a Holiday Commemorating the Destruction of Your Ancestors,” published by Literary Hub in 2015, Indigenous poet Tommy Pico confronts the reality of the history of Thanksgiving and what it means for him: “You’re maybe only a little bit aware of it for a small part of today, in between the family or the baking or the turkey. It might be a twinge. But that twinge is where I live.” In the conclusion of the essay, Pico offers a summary of how he spends the holiday—making pie with his friends, writing poems, and drinking dirty martinis—and provides readers a chance to reflect on what it means to ask how a Native American celebrates Thanksgiving. Inspired by the duality in Pico’s essay, write a personal essay about how the history of Thanksgiving affects the way you experience the holiday today.

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