About the Post

Author Information

Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Why Writing Prompts Work

block writer's block canstockphoto11882995 (2)Too much freedom is paralyzing. The invitation to “write anything you want” is too open-ended. We can’t start because we don’t where to start.

On the other hand, being told exactly what to write and how creates the “don’t tell me what to do” opposition response.

Writing prompts work because they hit that sweet spot of just enough freedom, just enough structure.

It’s delightfully paradoxical: creative constraints expand creativity. (More on How Constraints Force Us to Be More Creative)

Your Brain is Lazy Efficient

Running a human brain is expensive. Running a creative human brain is even more expensive.

Your brain makes up roughly 3% of your body’s mass, but it uses 20 to 30% or more of your body’s supply of oxygen and glucose. To make such a big brain evolutionarly viable, humans evolved the first “energy efficiency measures.”

thinking fast and slowOur brains got lazy. They do as little as possible with the routine stuff. You don’t have to think of creative ways to tie your shoes or drive to work. You don’t even have to think at all, you do these things on auto-pilot, which uses very little brain energy. (more in Thinking, Fast and Slow)

This way, the brain has the resources to make those glorious leaps of creative insight, innovation and brilliance on the non-routine tasks.

The problem is recognizing when to shift the brain into overdrive. A lazy efficient brain tends to stay in lazy efficient mode until forced to shift.

Frustration Forces the Shift

pencil shift writer's block canstockphoto17668550 (2)When our usual approaches can’t solve a problem, we get frustrated. And that is a good thing. Without frustration, our brains would not shift out of routine processing.

In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer writes, “the feeling of frustration – the act of being stumped – is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer – before we probably even know the question – we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost.” (p. 6)

Then, and only then, will the brain shift into the high energy consuming creative mode. Then, and only then, can we see the question or situation in a new way and create innovative solutions.

Writing prompts and other creative constraints work because they get us to that frustration faster.

Where to Find Frustration

Many writing classes at the Loft Literary Center and elsewhere include writing prompts.

A search will reveal more writing prompt sites and blogs than you can shake a pen at. Here are a few:

Please share your favorite prompts or writing prompt sources.


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  1. Random Writing Prompts to Solve Writer’s Block | Bane of Your Resistance - October 15, 2015

    […] last post explained why writing prompts work and provided links for finding them. You can also create your own creative constraints via the […]


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