Prompts: What, Why, How?

What are prompts, and why do we use them?

“What do I write about?” is one of the most common questions on anyone’s mind when asked to write. Many of us had this problem in school whenever we were expected to produce a story, essay, or project.  Prompts are suggestions: words, images, or ideas that spark the imagination, and give us something to write about.

Prompts can come in many forms. The ones I usually look to are below.

Challenge: A brief sentence or two that gives you a specific direction.  Example: Write about a poem about a superhero coming to your house and confronting you about something. Somewhere in the poem, you have to state what your superpower is.

Short Form: A shorter, and usually less specific prompt, that leaves more to the imagination. Example: Write about a long journey

One/Two Word:  An extremely short prompt that usually invokes an emotional response. Example: Delayed Flight

Image: A picture, drawing, or painting (or in fact, anything visual) that inspires a response. Example:

woman sitting on cliff
Photo by Jordan Benton on

Epigraph:  Bouncing off the words of another. It could be a line from another poem, a song, or a quote, used as a starting point (and theme) for your work. Example: “I shut my eyes in order to see” ~ Paul Gauguin

Poetic Form: There are hundreds of poetic forms in use in poems across the world. Many use specific rhyme schemes and meter to develop a pattern and musicality to the poem. in my opinion, poetic forms are difficult to master, which is why they make good challenges. Different poetic forms can be found in books, such as Lewis Turco’s The New Book of Forms or online at sites like the  Example: Sonnet

Hugo Poem: This is one of the most challenging prompts, but it is my favorite. Choose 12  words: four nouns, four adjectives, four verbs. Wind them into a poem. I actually prefer to up the challenge, and have my friends choose the words for me. They will often choose words that are complex and contrary. It’s fun to see how they come together.  For an even greater challenge, I combine this prompt with the poetic form challenge. Yeow! Below is an example set of words I received from a friend. I like to give credit to my friends for their suggestions at the end of the poem. Example:

string, experience, crayon, embrace
perpendicular, burlesque, sinister, lugubrious
skedaddle, tallywack, infer, stink (Stu Carpenter)

For examples of prompts in practice (as I use them in poems), click HERE

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