Promptless writing

600px-Tie-dyeWriting prompts are extremely easy to come by – people are giving them away for free on thousands of different web sites – which should give you a clue to exactly how worthless most of them are. The student who cannot string together two coherent sentences can probably come up with half a dozen in a snap. Next time this student balks at a writing assignment, ask him to create a list of prompts that he would like to write about. It’s much easier than actually writing, and he still will not be able to string two coherent sentences together. Writing is the real difficulty. A prompt does not necessarily make it any easier for the writer; only for the person grading the paper. The capacity to create something in response to a prompt is what separates the good writers from the not so good writers.

There are basically two types of prompts for narrative writing:

1) The kind that should not be included verbatim in the text.

An example of type 1 – “Write about the person who influenced you the most.” I warn students not to start the paper with “The person who influenced me the most is ….” like  90% of students do. Everyone is supposed to have a real life experience based on these generic prompts, so they are frequently used for compulsory compositions. However, you risk boring to death both the student and whoever is grading the paper as this same prompt is provided for the umpteenth time.

2) The kind that must be included verbatim in the text.

An example of type 2  – “I returned to the deep, dark woods where I first saw it.” These prompts are supposed to help creative writers that haven’t heard from their muse recently. While it might inspire someone suffering from a lapse in imagination, many students complain about having no connection to what the prompt describes. After all, they will not all destined to be fiction writers.

One option to avoid these dilemmas is to let the students come up with their own ideas for writing. If students do not read a lot, this will pose some difficulty. Spend a few days, reading a wide selection of excerpts and have students record the types of writing which they like best. This list can be used to start their own list of personal writing ideas. A part of a day each week may be spent in simply brainstorming ideas that they can write about. Let them freely share and copy off of each other with the understanding that they should be willing to write about anything on their list. Most importantly, students should write short compositions (250 -500 words) more than one time a week. Ideas come most easily if students actually spend more time writing.

If you are still stuck with having students write to prompts, let every class member get a chance to create prompts. Encourage student to be imaginative, keep the topics clean, but don’t worry about keeping them positive – after all the literature they will be reading is not the most cheerful stuff. Offer a mixture of different ones for each assignment. Don’t forget that there is an inherent problem in writing for adolescents; it’s called self-esteem. Revealing personal exposés are interesting to read, and embarrassing to write. It is often this self-protection of the ego that prevents students from writing on prompts that are advertised as “letting the writer draw on their own experience.” They really do not want anyone to know about particular incidents.

Finally, avoid the ten worst writing prompts. Don’t ask students to write about:

  1. Your most embarrassing (disappointing) experience
  2. A time that you made an important (difficult, good, bad) choice
  3. Your greatest accomplishment (achievement, victory, moment of pride)
  4. An obstacle (difficulty, barrier, impossibility) you overcame
  5. A time you learned a lesson (suffered a consequence, paid the price for your actions)
  6. The person who has influenced (inspired, helped, rescued) you in a positive manner
  7. A time when you influenced (inspired, helped, rescued) another person in a positive manner
  8. The day (moment, week, month, year, decade) that changed your life
  9. The most inspiring encounter (person, event,  etc.)
  10. What was your most favorite ______? (fill in the blank with anything)

Somebody else has already asked them to do this before. If they didn’t do it right the first time, they need more than a prompt to help. If they did it right the first time, why punish them again?

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