10 Tips for Using the Fertile Material Writing Prompts

By Milli Thornton

HAVE YOU EVER stared at a writing prompt—or a story idea you’ve jotted in a notebook—desperately wondering how to cure your Blank Mind Syndrome and actually write something?

Solution: As long as you actually make use of them, the ten tips below are guaranteed to spark you into writing mode.

You don’t have to use all ten tips to be successful. A good plan is to print the tips and keep them handy. Next time you want to get revved up to write a story, glance through the list and use the tip that’s calling out to you the loudest.

These tips can be used with the four free sample prompts (see Related Topics at the end for the link) or the 112 prompts from my book, Fear of Writing.


1. Use friends to create the intent to write

Meet with friends in a coffeehouse with the express purpose of doing the prompt(s) together. Even two friends writing together is less intimidating—and more inspiring—than going it alone.

Agree to do it just for fun so there’s no dampener of critiques at the end. Egg one another on to treat this as creative liberation and have a real break from your more serious writing. Be sure to practice laughter therapy.

2. A nudge to help you get off and running

Write up the prompt longhand (or, if you’re on a computer, type it up). The physical act of writing something, even if you’re only regurgitating the assignment, makes the right connections in your brain and gives it something positive to do. Whereas staring at the prompt and tapping your teeth with a pen reinforces the idea that you’re not sure how to proceed.

While your brain is engaged with the practical matter of copying the prompt, your subconscious mind has a chance to slip in under the cracks. I’ve seen this simple trick work many times.

3. Start with the basics

Don’t pressure yourself to sound perfect (or even warmed up yet) in your opening lines. Sometimes just stating a few simple things about your character can open the doorway to discovering your story line.

Here’s an example of a simple opening using a prompt about an old lady making a last stand against developers:

“Aggie Blintz is small with squinty eyes. Her slippers are shabby. She lives in Pasadena.”

4. Name Soup

If you can’t seem to think of how to start your story, sometimes the whole energy of the situation can be changed by coming up with a funny, silly or clever name for at least one of your characters.

For instance (from Fear of Writing, page 18): “Wouldn’t you find it easier to be slapstick or inventive with a character called Pierre Onion than one by the name of Pete Martin?”

5. Take some risks!

The purpose of these prompts is to stimulate and explore your imagination and to have fun. You’ll get more mileage from the prompt by using a bit of daring.

Make your conflict extreme . . . or perhaps a bit wacky. Or both!

6. Let yourself be messy

Messy can mean any number of things, but let’s look at one example. If things in your story were happening out of chronological order—in a way that made sense to you but might confuse a reader—AND it was helping you go with the flow, would that be so bad?

The only person you’re obliged to please with this exercise is yourself.

7. Flaunt those &@#% rules in your head

By the same token, nothing bad is gonna happen if you break some of those ingrained rules from your English teacher. You know the ones. Never start a sentence with “And.” Never include author asides. Don’t be inconsistent with your point of view. Yada yada yada.

Give yourself a vacation from the rules. And, don’t worry. They’ll always be there when you get back!

8. Turn the tables on yourself

Change one of your familiar patterns. Here are some ideas to get you thinking of your own table-turners.

If you normally write from a less immediate point of view, write in first person this time. If your protagonist is normally a woman, make ’er a man. If your protagonist is usually an animal lover, give her a big dose of doraphobia (fear of contact with animal fur or skin).

Going out of your comfort zone will take your brain into new territories of the imagination.

9. Endings are optional

Having the least expectations on ourselves has a magical way of tapping into our potential. Give yourself the freedom to dabble with the prompts without the pressure of needing to come up with a viable ending for your stories.

You may think of one anyway, but the point is, you don’t have to.

10. Don’t try to write literature

Remember, you’re here to have fun and to let your hair down. One writer I know, a grandma, happens to adore Johnny Depp. She has greatly entertained our writing circle by writing sassy, funny stories about a handsome pirate by the name of Capt. Jack Sparrow (and in the story, she is the protagonist who benefits from his manly appeal).

Anything that adds more playfulness—or freedom from internal repression—is the way to go.



Fertile Material Writing Prompts: 4 Freebies

Milli Thornton, Fear of Writing Blog | Fear of Writing Online Course

Milli Thornton


Milli Thornton is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She is owner of the Fear of Writing Online Course, where her mission is to put the fun back into writing. Milli blogs at Screenwriting in the Boonies and Milliver’s Travels and coaches writers individually at Writer’s Muse.

2 Responses to 10 Tips for Using the Fertile Material Writing Prompts
  1. Helen Ginger
    April 18, 2009 | 11:46 AM

    All great ideas. If something isn’t working for you, then do something different. Good advice.


  2. Ja'Nese Dixon
    November 19, 2009 | 12:09 PM

    I’m printing this article. I love the uniqueness of your writing prompts in Fear of Writing. Thanks.

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