Freewriting Prompts: why use them?

The freedom of freewriting

A freewriting session, typically 10 minutes long, is a chance to experience complete freedom and spend some time in the strange, unique, space of your own mind.  In freewriting, you follow whatever thoughts or pictures present themselves and get down as many as you can on paper without hesitating to examine them for quality or ‘niceness’.

Freewriting with no topic or start-off point, other than the thoughts going through your head, is the bedrock of the practice of freewriting and whenever your writing has begun to feel constricted by the demands placed upon it, freewriting will restore air and light and give you back a feeling of control and liberty as a writer.

Freewriting with a prompt

A good freewriting prompt, however, can elicit even more in terms of unexpected material.  The prompt can act like the grit in an oyster and create a pearl of an idea or image.  The prompts I favour are short, with many possible interpretations.  One of my favourites is to simply pick a colour and freewrite as many things and associations or memories linked to whatever I have selected.

The best prompts are both a surprise and something you would not have come up with yourself.  This is why I started sending freewriting prompts over e-mail: the idea is to open the email and immediately start freewriting.  Because to plan freewriting, is very much against the spirit of the exercise.  It’s the first, unfiltered reactions and thoughts that will be the freshest and most arresting.

Prompts to solve problems

One of the strangest ways I’ve used a prompt is to help with novel-writing.

I have a tin of prompts on slips of paper old enough for me to have forgotten what’s on them.  When I am stuck with a scene, character or plot gap, I set up my freewriting equipment and pull out a prompt at random.  My challenge is to somehow combine the prompt with my current problem and I have very often solved a bad tangle with this method.

Prompts are fun

In the classroom, my creative writing students love writing from prompts.  They behave as though I had given them a special present when I reveal the prompt and a few minutes later, set a timer going.  Having no chance to prepare releases them from all sorts of hang-ups about being ‘good’ and they know I would never, ever, ask anyone to read out their freewriting immediately afterwards, because freewriting is primarily for the writer.  If, at a later date, there’s something in it worth editing, polishing and sharing, then great.  But if not, it’s equally fine: freewriting from a prompt will have accessed and activated new areas of the brain and established the habit and skill of writing on demand without fear or excuses.

What’s not to like?