Nonfiction Essay Prompt

Kick-start your creativity

Sometimes we all need a kick-start for our creativity.

It’s common practice amongst students of creative fiction, young and old, to use a prompt, or an exercise, to get started with a piece of writing, or to help generate ideas.

Nonfiction writers are much less likely to do this — and it’s at a cost to the speed and skill of their writing.

Rather than go straight into the piece you are working on, it’s tremendously valuable to take a side-step and spend the first few minutes of writing, practicing or free-writing, on something that is not your topic. Warm-up exercises for writers so to speak.

What we call ‘writing prompts’ in the business, are used to generate creativity in an unfamiliar situation. Fiction writers might use them for character development, or plot creation, or just to get into the flow, and nonfiction writers can use them to explore and practice tools and techniques that are relevant for them.

Boost your output

Gabriela Pereira creative director of DIY MFA, believes that writing prompts have more than one function:

  • They can increase your output and creativity by lowering the risk and the expectation you attach to a project.
  • They boost your confidence and your ability to write ‘on the fly’.
  • They shape your craft, allow you to practice new styles and new techniques without losing cohesiveness in your main project. This is especially important for newer writers still trying to ‘find their voice’.
  • And they can be an easy way to put down your thoughts onto paper, without the boundaries of structure and form in your regular writing.

And, while, there are thousands and thousands of pages of writing prompts for fiction writers, there are far fewer for the person writing about their experience or expertise. And while the line,

The clouds turned grey and the sun slowly veiled its face,

might set the pens of creative writers on fire, it won’t necessarily do much for you.

Practical and creative

We nonfiction writers, need something more practical, where we can write in the same style that we want to use in our formal writing (blogs or books), but on a different topic. Or, where we write on the same topic, but in a completely different style.

Break out of the ‘block’

Whether you’re feeling stuck, or you just want to practice and  develop your craft, put down your work for a moment and give one of these nonfiction writing prompts a try:

1. Take a lesson

Think of one lesson you learned today, or in the last week, and explain it to someone in writing.

Outline the problem, the solution, and exactly how you came to that solution. Be as clear and concise as possible, as though this was going to print tomorrow.

2. 200 words on you

In no more than 200 words, explain who you are.

This is a challenging prompt, as it is the one topic you know everything about, and you have to be really selective to choose which 200 words of your life define you.

It will force you to make hard choices that you need to transfer to your real writing. Practice it a few times taking a different perspective each time.

3. 10 steps…

…on how not to be mistaken for a fire extinguisher when you’re out on a picnic.

Nonfiction writing prompts don’t have to be dull and boring, and can be as creative as those for fantasy fiction writers.

Taking an unusual setting such as this, and writing in standard formula will force you to come face to face with the words and phrases you depend on. Because in a nonsense topic like this, they will stand out like, well, a fire extinguisher at a picnic.

This is a great exercise to practice and then review afterwards.

4. Your wildest dream

For this one, write about what it is you want, more than anything in the world.

This prompt was taken from Joe Bunting’s The Write Practice, where he explains that all good stories are about desires.

So is yours. It’s the desire to do better, and to make other people do better. Put that desire into writing.

5. Your Big Adventure

Set out on an imaginary adventure, and write about it.

It doesn’t need to be big; it could be as simple as going down to the shops and grabbing a loaf of bread. The content isn’t important — it’s how you relay it.

Lots of wonderful books have been written about people with life experiences not much different from yours. It’s the way they were written that made them compelling.

Your book can be wonderful too, but you have to find the skill to write it well. Practice writing about a physical adventure, and you’ll improve on your intellectual one.

6. Teach a 10 year old

Take a topic from your book, or a task that you do every day, and explain it to a 10 year old in writing.

You’ll find that by explaining it to someone who has absolutely zero knowledge of what you do, you’ll begin to see which areas you’ve glossed over in your actual writing. And you can highlight these to go back and work on again. Sometimes it’s OK to do a bit of over-explaining for the uninitiated.

More Places to Find Prompts

If you’re looking for a place to find inspiration for your next blog post, article, or Facebook post, Hubpages 101 Nonfiction Writing Prompts is a fantastic resource.

It actually has 101 prompts, ranging from memoirs, to basically giving you the next title of your blog post – as well as a few ethical debates. It’s a great resource to help you put together a quick post if you’re not tapping into your usual motivation.

And, our favourite three minute writing exercises will help you practice your nonfiction writing skills, as well as giving you a bit of fun along the way.

No holds barred

If you’re looking for full-on creativity, and experience what a few minutes of no-holds-barred imaginative writing does for your confidence, there are an abundance of places to get prompts from. Have a look at Writers’ Digest or Creative Writing Solutions. Or, if you like the idea of getting fresh inspiration every day, sites such as One Minute Writer post one new prompt for you to use every day.

Alternatively, look through visual sights such as Flickr, Tumblr, or Instagram, or even try picking out lines in your favourite songs for inspiration.

Just write what you see, or hear.

What’s your goal?

When you use writing prompts, remember to identify your end goal.

  • Do you want to spend five minutes inspiring your creativity?
  • Do you want to tackle a task from a different angle?
  • Are you just going through a rough patch of writing and want to get back into the flow?

Also keep your goal in mind, and as soon as it’s achieved (or if it looks like it’s not going to happen), move on.

Writing to a prompt is the same as going to a training session and batting in the nets. It’s a way to practice your writing and try out new things techniques that you would never attempt in a live game.

Don’t spend too much time on your prompts; their purpose is to push you on to bigger and better things.

So take the push, write to the prompt, but remember to move on and write something you want to publish.

Cathy Presland

Have you tried these, or do you have other ones that work? Let us know on social media.

1.        Write about someone you admire from afar—a public figure or celebrity.

2.        Revisit your earliest memories of learning about faith, religion, or spirituality.

3.        Write a how-to article about a task, activity, or project you’ve learned to complete through practical experience in your career.

4.        Have you ever had déjà vu—the strange sense that you’ve experienced something before? Write a personal essay about it.

5.        What is the number-one goal you want to achieve as a writer? To reach your main writing goal, what do you need to do?

6.        Think about what your favorite holiday means to you. Why do you celebrate it? How does it shape or affect your life for the rest of the year?

7.        Heartbreak is part of life and full of lessons. Tell the story of a heartbreak you’ve experienced.

8.        Write a critical review of your favorite book. What made it so good? Could it have been better? Provide a detailed analysis of its strengths and weaknesses.

9.        Remember when you were a little kid and you learned something new about life or how the world works? Write an article for kids about what you learned, how you learned it, and how you felt about it. For example: learning where food comes from.

10.     Have you ever felt like you were meant for something, that some event or moment in your life was fated? Have you ever felt an inexplicable call to do something? Where do you think this feeling comes from? Write about it.

11.     Read your favorite poem and take a few minutes to contemplate it. Then write a reaction to the poem. Why do you love it? How does it make you feel? What makes this poem so special to you? If you don’t have a favorite poem, write about your favorite song lyrics.

12.     Write a top-ten article listing your favorite songs or albums with short explanations of why each one earned a spot on your list.

13.     Do you believe the existence of a higher power can be proven or disproved? Write a personal essay about it.

14.     Art is all around. You can purchase books packed with images of art. You can visit museums and galleries. You can surf the web for photographs of paintings and sculptures. Choose a piece of art that speaks to you and write about it. Describe the piece. How does it make you feel? What details give it power or make it captivating?

15.     They say it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Whom have you loved and lost?

16.     Think back on some embarrassing moments that you’ve experienced. Now write a series of scenes depicting those moments.

17.     Write a how-to article about something you can do that is not part of your job (for example: how to bake a cake from scratch or how to change the oil in your car).

18.     What do you like to wear during summer, winter, fall, or spring? Write about your sense of fashion (or lack thereof). Does it change with the seasons?

19.     Tell a story about one (or both) of your parents.

20.     Write about your experience with a mentor, teacher, or coach, explaining how working with someone more knowledgeable than you helped you.

21.     What determines an action or person as good or evil? Who gets to decide what or who is good or evil? Write a personal essay about it.

22.     Think about the last book you read. How did the book make you feel? Were you sad? Scared? Intrigued? What was it about the book that evoked an emotional response from you? Was it the characters? The plot? The subject matter?

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