When writing in a journal every single day, it can be difficult to come up with new topics and ideas. Listing your goals and writing about your day are no doubt great for your mental health, but you’ll probably want to mix things up from time to time. If nothing else, it will keep your journaling fresh and help you maintain your creative energy!
This is where writing prompts come in. Even if you’ve never used them before, you can probably guess what they do: provide a thought or premise for you to expand into your own work, filtering a concept through your unique creative voice.
However, what you may not know is how to utilize them for maximum potential in a journaling capacity. After all, in a world full of prompts with so many to choose from, there are infinite possibilities as to where they might lead. How can you know exactly what will work best for you?
I can’t tell you exactly what to write about — nor would I want to, since journaling should be your own individual journey. What I can do is share some advice on how to approach this process, especially if you’ve never tried it before! With that in mind, here are four essential tips to optimize your prompt usage for creative journaling.
1. Pick each prompt mindfully
My first tip for you is probably the most important, so listen up: when you have a list of writing prompts to choose from, don’t just pick one at random. Even if you think it won’t really matter, your choice of prompt can have a huge impact on what you end up producing — the length, the tone, and even the genre of your writing. So take your time when browsing through prompt options to choose one that a) genuinely inspires you, and b) you feel prepared to take on.
For instance, if you think a prompt sounds super-interesting but also a little intimidating (e.g. “Write a story about elephants without once using the letter E”), you might want to skip it for now. Likewise, if you find a prompt that would be easy-peasy to fulfill (e.g. “Write 100 words about the outfit you’re wearing right now”) but isn’t particularly inspiring, resist the temptation to just dash off those 100 words and call it a day.
Also, if you’re the type of person who always has trouble picking one thing over another (restaurants, movies, etc.), here’s some insider knowledge that might help! After about a year of helping run a weekly writing contest over at Reedsy, I’ve found that writers seem to be most inspired by prompts that are open-ended. In other words: prompts that present an idea or theme, rather than a precise mandate, tend to yield more entries! So when in doubt, go open-ended — more conceptual, less structural — for inspiration.
2. Don’t worry about following it exactly
On that note, even if you do select a prompt that’s fairly specific, feel free to deviate from it as your writing progresses. Unless you’re entering a contest, which is a whole different ball game from journaling, it doesn’t matter how closely you stick to the original prompt. In fact, the best and most inspired writing often uses a prompt as a springboard, but develops the material in a totally unexpected way.
Take, for instance, this quote from Nicholas Nickleby as a writing prompt: “The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.” While it might generate many a great story about old friends reuniting and old flames rekindling, the true standout would be a story that does something completely, brilliantly different — like this one.
The moral of this tip? Try not to think of writing prompts as limiting, but as liberating. There are so many potential paths that you should never feel trapped by the prompt you choose; rather, it should empower you to write something truly unique and amazing.
3. Start with short pieces, then up the ante
Writing prompts are ideal for experimentation: the point is to see how you respond to different ideas, and to find those that are most stimulating to you. So as you start to incorporate prompts into your journaling, keep your responses short and snappy — a good rule of thumb is 300 words or less per prompt, at least at first.
Depending on how big your journal pages are, and how small your handwriting is, this will probably be just 1-2 pages of writing. And since most of us probably only have about 15-20 minutes for journaling every day, this should work out perfectly!
As you continue to use writing prompts in your journaling, however, you’ll likely find yourself getting tired of those quick vignettes. This is when it’s time to challenge yourself with meatier prompts and longer responses — say 500 to 1000 words per topic. As a result, your response to a single prompt may spread out over multiple days. But once you reach this stage, it won’t feel obligatory. Instead, you’ll start looking forward to it!
Such is the magic of creative writing: it can truly elevate your journaling to another level. Indeed, it may even help you find your wheelhouse as an author, if that’s something you want to pursue. Whether you’re meant to be a memoirist, comic writer, SFF author, or whatever else, writing prompts (and journaling as a whole) can really help you define your life path.
4. Use them for balance, not as a replacement
All that being said: writing prompts are great for accessing your creative side and shaking up your routine, but that doesn’t mean they should replace all other forms of writing. Rather, prompts should provide balance to your journaling process. As I’ve said, they’re a great remedy for when your writing starts feeling a bit stale. But writing prompts can get tedious as well, if you use them for too long without any dilution.
So be aware of how much you rely on writing prompts vs. other methods of journaling (planning, freewriting, straight-up ranting, and so on). And if you ever feel burnt out on creative writing, simply avoid it for a while, until you feel a pull back in that direction. Yes, prompts can be a fantastic resource, but only if you use them properly — which, hopefully, you know how to do by now!
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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.