On Material: Writing Prompts

Prompts can be more than just a warm-up to the real writing; they can lead us to material in surprising ways. A dominant left brain can lead to over-thinking, playing it safe, and self-judging—all of which can block the creative right brain. Prompts help us loosen up and let go of control.

Robert Olen Butler says that good writing doesn’t come from thinking, but from the unconscious. The prompt is a way to access the unconscious, to connect us to our right brain instead of waiting for it to connect with us.

For a stream-of-consciousness free write, choose general and open-ended prompts. Write whatever comes to mind, even if it seems nonsensical or inappropriate. Write for three to five minutes without pausing to plan, revise, correct, or judge. Not every prompt will produce usable material, but each one has the potential to reveal details, images, ideas, and themes that could transform our writing.

3 Prompts To Try This Week:

1. Select a random household object (e.g., toy soldier, silver dollar, dice, souvenir shot glass, empty film canister, buttons, box of matches) from a shelf, drawer, or pre-assembled grab bag. Free write about the object you select.

2. Draw a word from a deck of vocabulary flash cards. If you don’t own flash cards, create a set by writing places, animals, colors, fruits, or even verbs onto index cards. Each day pick one and do a free write in response to the word.

3. Open a book of poetry to any page. Use the first line of the poem on that page to start a free write.


Butler, Robert Olen, and Janet Burroway. From Where You Dream:The Process of Writing Fiction. New York: Grove, 2005.

Massey, Irving. The Neural Imagination: Aesthetic and Neuroscientific Approach to the Arts. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009.



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Categorized as Craft

By Miciah Bay Gault

Miciah Bay Gault is the editor of Hunger Mountain at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's also a writer, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, and other fine journals. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and children.