This is a guest post by Lucia Tang.

Say you’ve reached the point where inspiration is as elusive as water in a desert. Every word you type feels futile, like trudging through endless sand.

Who’s going to bail you out? 

You are the only one who can, of course. But that doesn’t mean you have to rely solely on the contents of your own mind—which, let’s be honest, is feeling pretty parched at this point. Time to irrigate it with some writing prompts! 

When you’re in the throes of writer’s block, a prompt can be just what you need. Whether it’s supplied by a contest, taken from a website, or half-remembered from your student days, a prompt can seriously perk you up when you’re feeling uninspired.

That’s because writing prompts take quite a bit of the pressure off. When you’re grappling with someone else’s assignment, there’s much less anxiety about having to generate your best writing ever.

Compare that to, say, writing a book: your own book. With so consequential—and so personal—a task, the blank page couldn’t be scarier.

But writing prompts can do more for you than just treat your writer’s block.

Be smart about how you use them, and they’ll actually improve your writing—pushing you to hone your craft and teaching you to turn out strong prose on command.

Here are five ways you can use them to have your best writing year yet.

1. Use them to build a writing practice

Like musicians and dancers, writers are artists. But it can be hard not to feel estranged from our counterparts in the performance disciplines. After all, pianists play their scales, and ballerinas have their barres. But what’s a novelist or a short fiction writer supposed to do for practice? The answer: write with prompts.

Seek out writing prompts regularly—maybe every week or even every day—and respond to them with short pieces, no more than 500 words.

These brief exercises aren’t supposed to see the light of publication, not any more than a dancer’s morning barre routine is meant to be performed on-stage. So take each one as a low-stakes opportunity to work on your craft.

Don’t worry about polish, just focus on keeping those writing muscles warm and limber.

Stick with it, and you’ll quickly find yourself growing in technique and flexibility, like a disciplined dancer.

2. Apply them to an existing project

If you’ve already got a project in your pipeline, use writing prompts to explore it further.

Your ideas are likely to be richer than even you realise—a whole uncharted land full of narrative potential.

A writing prompt can help you map that land to its outermost reaches.

The prose you generate doesn’t have to make it into your final draft, but it should help you chart out the emotional world of your story.

Try taking a supporting character from your cast and making them the protagonist of a new, prompt-inspired snippet.

Or, sketch out a what-if scenario—a scene from your memoir that never actually happened, but could have. 

3. Use them to get out of your comfort zone

Writing prompts allow us the freedom to experiment. So don’t feel tied to the sort of thing you always write.

If you’re normally a memoirist, try a bit of science fiction.

If you usually stick to third person limited omniscience, spend a few pages playing with second person.

Think of yourself as a cross-training athlete. You may be going out of your comfort zone, but you’re improving your overall fitness as a writer, strengthening your voice and polishing your facility with literary technique.

At the same time, you’re giving yourself a break from your usual genre—so you can return to it feeling refreshed. 

4. Combine two—especially if they don’t seem to go together

Try layering two writing prompts together for a real writerly workout.

Take them from different genres, and you just might come up with an irresistible mashup, the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Say you’ve decided to grab both a fantasy prompt and a romance prompt, weaving them together into a single narrative. Here’s the first one:

For hundreds of years, it’s been thought that all of the land has been discovered. But that’s not true, and you’re about to prove it.

And the second: 

Write a love story that ends with: “I’ve made a huge mistake.” 

How would you combine these?

You could use the fantasy prompt to give the romance one a little, magical twist. It’s still a love story. But maybe the ‘mistake’ isn’t a failed romance—maybe it’s a reference to the fact that the acknowledged map of the world is wrong, and there’s an enchanted continent no one knew about, inhabited by fire-breathing dragons.

Or maybe the lovers made a huge mistake when they sailed off to unknown parts without bringing any fire-resistant armour. They’re worried about what those dragons will do to their little wooden ship, and that brings them closer together than they ever expected…

5. Push them to their breaking point 

Sometimes, it’s fun to feel like you’re getting away with something. That’s the great thing about writing prompts—they’re a little like homework, but there’s no one to punish you if you cheat.

Of course you shouldn’t plagiarise, but you can push the prompt to its limit. Respond to it in a way you know its creator never intended, like a genie doing his best to frustrate a wish-maker.

If you’re asked, say, ‘Write a story about a road trip between two old friends that turns into something more,’ you don’t have to make that ‘something more’ a romance. It could be a bank robbery, the discovery of friend A’s fairy ancestry, or the founding of a squid-worshipping cult.

Writing prompts might give you a nudge in the right direction, but at the end of the day, the writer is you. All the narrative decisions are in your hands. 

How to improve your writing using writing prompts

Lucia Tang is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. Reedsy also provides tools to help authors write and format their books, as well as free learning courses and webinars to help them learn more about writing and publishing. In Lucia’s spare time, she enjoys drinking cold brew and planning her historical fantasy novel.