How To Create An Essay Prompt

How Writing Prompts Build Writing Skills

Writing prompts or essay prompts are learning assignments that direct students to write about a particular topic in a particular way. As our educational understanding has developed, writing prompts came on the scene as a way to corral students’ natural curiosity for the world around them. They are designed to integrate a students imagination and creativity into guided writing practice. Using them regularly as part of a multi-faceted writing curriculum can boost the chances that students will not only improve as writers but feel connected to the writing process.

Analyzing the Writing Prompt
While writing well depends on many skills that take time to develop, one skill can be taught fairly quickly: how to understand a writing prompt. Do you think that making sense of them is simply a matter of reading comprehension?  Actually, all too often, good students receive a poor writing grade because they misunderstood the essay writing prompt. In order to successfully respond, students must learn to analyze the prompt before responding to it.

Questions to Ask
Just as they do in the prewriting phase of any writing task, students should ask questions about the assignment that help them narrow down their overall goal. When working with writing prompts, the following are helpful questions to pin down the answers to:

  • What form of writing does it require?
  • What is the purpose of the prompt?
  • What information do I need to complete the task?
  • What kind of details or arguments does it suggest and would these points make good paragraphs?
  • Who is the audience for the essay?
  • How does the audience’s expectations affect my writing style?

By asking and answering these questions, students can jump-start their essay outline and formulate their thesis. A good way to begin is to write a one-sentence response to each question. When students study the writing prompt closely and use it as the basis for prewriting, they’ll be on their way to writing an essay that fully addresses the goals prompt. This is wonderful practice for any type of long-form writing, as well.

The Importance of Writing Form

One of the key stumbling blocks of writing prompt interpretation is figuring out what form of writing is required. For example, is it an expository, narrative, or persuasive prompt? Sometimes prompts explicitly specify the form of writing to be used, or give strong hints with words like “persuade” for the persuasive writing form. Other times, the task of deciphering which form of writing to use is part of the challenge. The trick is to recognize the clues given in the prompt. Here are some key words to look for:

  • Expository Essay –how, what, explain, define, analyze, compare/contrast
  • Narrative Essay –tell, story, relate, imagine, describe
  • Persuasive Essay –convince, persuade, why, opinion, argue

Writing Prompts as Standardized Test Practice

Teachers also use prompts to help students prepare for standardized tests. They are found on all standardized tests, from state writing assessments to national tests like ACT and SAT. Age-appropriate writing prompts on standardized tests often focus on contemporary social issues. Keeping up with current events is good preparation, as is participating in discussion groups and reading both fiction and nonfiction books.

Time4Writing Builds Fundamental Skills 

At Time4Writing, we focus on teaching the fundamental skills required for good writing. Each student is paired with a certified teacher for one-on-one instruction. Our teachers draw from their classroom experience to help their students with all the nuts and bolts of building good essays, beginning with understanding the writing prompt. There is a free flow of conversation between students and the teacher, helping students thrive with individualized attention to their writing. Writing becomes something they enjoy, instead of a chore. Learn more about how Time4Writing’s certified teacher-led program works for homeschool, afterschool practice, or summer skill-building.

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  • Nicky White

    I am not sure if anyone has done this, but when I was a teenager, 20 odd years ago, I used to keep a notepad by my bedside and write my dreams as soon as I woke up so as not to forget them.

    On recalling this I thought that it would be a good idea to get back into this habit and use the dreams as inspiration for my writing even if the amount of info remembered from the dream would only serve as a writing prompt.

  • Gina H

    These are by far my favourite writing prompts. I need more like these. I like to use them for chapter openings and prefer them to the usual prompts.

  • Christine Carson

    In my writing group we have a short story contest once a month. We can write whatever we want and are given two or more words that we have to use in the story. I have used several of the writing prompts listed above to get an idea. I not only won on an idea from #8, but I’m now turning it into a novel. Your prompts are very simple and help get my imagination going. Thank you so much!!!!!

  • Danny

    Reddit has an entire subreddit dedicated to user-submitted writing prompts:

  • Martin Haworth

    You can simply grab a dictionary or a newspaper and then a random word. And see what you can make of it!

  • Penny Wilkes

    Go to the above website or Penny’s Creative Writeshop on Facebook for a prompt a day.

  • TN K Venkatraman

    Excellent and quite informative!

  • Racheal

    Thank you so much for this post. These are awesome writing prompts.

  • Mariana

    I think it’s much easier to write from prompts of fanfiction, because there’s already an background universe and characters that both the reader and the writer are familiar with. Also, they tend to be more specific, which can really give an idea of what to do, but still giving you freedom to choose how the prompt’s events will take place. It’s a win-win for writer, prompter and random reader.

  • KJ

    Really useful, thanks!

  • Grane O.

    Silk. It flowed like water, a shining, slippery green stream, tumbling down Jill’s arm like a waterfall. It would be perfect for her bridesmaids’ dresses.
    “It’s lovely,” she said to the sales clerk. “How much does it cost?”
    “Ten dollars a yard,” said the clerk.
    Jill hurriedly folded the silk and put the bolt back on the shelf. She couldn’t afford that. Four yards, and three bridesmaids, was a hundred and twenty dollars.
    She wandered through the store, trying not to look at the rows of silks. Then, between the acrylic felt and the organza, she caught a glimpse of silk again and averted her eyes. But instead, they fell on a sign.

    50% OFF

    Jill looked where the sign pointed, back to what she’d thought was silk. The same shining fabric as silk. The same drape, the same smoothness.
    She grabbed for the price tag. It said: six dollars a yard. At half off, that was… Jill scribbled on paper. Math was never her strong point. Thirty-six?
    “Twelve yards, please,” she said to the woman at the cutting counter.

  • David Stoddard

    I have been a fan of writing prompts for years. Good golly knows I have bought enough books of the sort over the years. They can be anything that gets one’s mind working and the words flowing. It can be as simple as a random word from the dictionary or an idea from a news story or some crazy event from a “reality” TV show. The prompts are endless.

    Thank you for this post. It’s provided a new start for myself as well.

  • tita bondoc

    writing a daily journal can help, i guess , or just writing about a movie you enjoyed so much.

  • zaynab

    my own writing prompt is to start writing as if i am writing a diary.
    Then, the conversation with dear diary will do the rest of the work.
    But the prompts that you mentioned kevin are also very helpful.

  • michael

    After reading on writing prompts i look back to finish my project of unleashing my non fictional novel.

  • Olivia

    Thank you so much! The first moment my eyes landed on the prompts a complete plotline of a story instantly snapped into my mind. This helped me a lot ^^

  • Ken

    Helpful post, Simon. Family members provide myriad writing prompts.

  • Reena Jacobs

    Wonderful post. A while back I found a writing prompt on a contest which spurred me to write a flash fiction piece. I’ve also had writing prompts give me scene ideas. For those days where the words just aren’t coming, writing prompts provide excellent sparks.

  • Simon Kewin


    Thanks for the feedback. Strange how you can miss typos despite much proofreading!


  • Stephen Thorn

    Excellent and helpful, Kevin! I’ve often told my writer friends who are suffering a block to use prompts to get their head thinking and fingers flying.

    Three prompts I often recommend:
    1. Take any ordinary object (a soda can is the example I use) and describe it well enough that anyone can read your words and know precisely what you were describing — the trick is that you can’t use certain words, like “can” or “soda” or “Coke” etc., in your description;
    2. Go to an antique dealers shop (really, any ‘I’ve never been in a store like THIS before’ kind of place will do) and pick an object, then write about it, who owned it before, what exotic ports of call it passed through on its way to the store, what the longshoreman who schlepped the crate it arrived in did in his leisure time, etc.;
    3. Listen to some music outside your comfort zone — if you like rap and hip-hop, listen to some old school country, for instance — and write what the music makes you feel or think about.

    The music prompt is from my own experience. I have an album that (almost!) never fails to ‘get my juices flowing’ and unleash the writer in me when nothing else will do it.

    Again, Kevin, great post (although you should proofread better).

  • Rebecca

    Excellent post! I recommend the Creative Copy Challenge ( Writers are provided with 10 words and they create a short story from them. I was participating in this and discovered my short story was turning into a fiction novel. I haven’t worked on it in some time because I was writing my non-fiction novel; I’ll revisit it in 2011.

  • Cindy Bidar

    And whatever you do, make sure you keep a pen and piece of paper next to your bed. I never fail to think of the most compelling first line ever just as I’m drifting off to sleep.

    It doesn’t always look quite as good the next day, but at least if I write it down it stands a chance of survival. If I trust it to memory, by morning it’s long gone.

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