What is a Prompt in Writing?

Written by Haley Boyce

what is a writing prompt

Motive. That’s the reason we do anything. Usually, there’s some sort of attached incentive – drinking coffee because it’s six in the morning and you’re not your best self until you’re about halfway through that first cup, going on a run for a healthier heart, enrolling in a creative writing program to network and get that first chapter of your novel going. These are things you do because you were compelled in some way. You were prompted to do it. 

A prompt in writing is what motivates or compels you to write. It also tells you what to write about. It can come from a writing instructor, a friend in a writing group, or it could be ready-made prompt you found online or even wrote yourself. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, what matters is that you understand it and respond to it appropriately. 

What is a Writing Prompt?

Writing prompts are instructions for what to write about. 

Sometimes they include how long your writing should be, sometimes they specify which writing style (APA, MLA, AP, Chicago), and sometimes they can be either very specific about what should be included or terribly vague. 

Different Types of Writing Prompts Draw Out Information and Perspectives for Different Applications

The kind of writing prompt you receive depends largely on why you’re receiving one in the first place. Let’s take a look at a few different scenarios and the types of prompts you might find in each one. 

Literary Analysis Prompts

You’ve Been Responding to Literary Analysis Prompts Ever Since Book Reports in Your Middle School Language Arts Class

greaserTake this sample prompt for an essay about heroism in S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders:

[For much of the novel, the Greasers are seen as hoodlums by the people in their town. This view changes toward the end of the novel when they are proclaimed heroes after saving the children from the burning church. However, they would not have been at the church at all if they hadn’t killed Bob and run away.

What do you think? Are the Greasers heroes or hoods?]

To respond to this prompt, a writer should choose one side of the argument (heroes or hoods), then include quotes from the story and explain why they prove their point. 

Creative Nonfiction Prompts

Nonfiction Prompts

Would You Rather . . .

would you ratherLet’s talk hypothetical chaos for a sec. Would you rather sneeze cheese puffs for the rest of your life or laugh uncontrollably during inappropriate situations? Would you rather have infinite access to money but can’t have any friends or family, or would you rather have no money at all but lots of friends and family?

These prompts are most likely not something you’d find as a writing assignment in a college or university creative writing program, but they are definitely a clever tool to get you to think beyond the typical writing styles, which can start to feel a little stale after a while. 

Other times, you might find that a deeper approach to an either/or scenario is the perfect writing prompt for your creative mind. Would you rather time travel to the past to meet your great-great-great grandparents or time travel to the future to meet your great-great-great grandchildren? … Would you rather be known for being someone who stopped a war or started one? … Would you rather know what everyone thought about you or not care what anyone thought about you at all?

You might have a knee-jerk reaction to each of these prompts, knowing what your initial answer might be. But when you step back to consider the pros and cons of each side, there are strong reasons to choose either one. Each of these “would you rather” writing prompts sparks debate, eliciting careful reflection and explanation. The creativity and impact for something that seems so simple on the surface has the power to inspire a complex thought process, and therefore, meaningful writing.  

How to Start a Writing Prompt

learning through writingLet’s say it’s the first day of class. You keep telling yourself, “I’m not nervous, just really excited.” The ice breaker games have been played, the introductions have been made. Your instructor is about to wrap things up, but not before handing out the first writing assignment of the term. You look at the prompt. Your palms start to sweat as you realize two things: (1) You sort of understand the assignment, and (2) you’re too embarrassed to ask for clarification.

If you learn only two things from this section, let it be that smart people ask questions (that’s how they got so smart. And you’re smart, so go ask for help), and that the best way to start responding to a writing prompt is to first understand how the prompt is put together.

A writing prompt usually has two main parts.

When reading a prompt, look for:

You’ve identified the writing situation and directions. So now what? It’s sometimes (most times) helpful to make a little list of the prompt’s basic directions. Jot them down as bullet points on a sticky note and keep it on your computer monitor while doing your research and organizing your evidence or notes. Like this:

Figuring out the prompt can sometimes be half the battle. Once you understand what’s being asked of you, you’re bound to have some sort of answer to use as a jumping off point. Take your time deciding the best argument for your paper by choosing an answer you not only care about the most, but also the one that has an abundance of evidence to support your claim.

Prompts in writing are meant to evoke a response from the writer that is passionate and believable. The writing process doesn’t always feel like a party but knowing how to read a writing prompt definitely makes it more enjoyable.

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