1, 2, 3 … Kickstart Your Writing

Need new story ideas? Make lists.

A mashup of Brainstorming and Writing Prompts, I find that list making can help even the most reluctant writer generate new and unexpected ideas. This is a fun activity to do by yourself, tackling a prompt or two per day, perhaps. Or, if you’re leading a class, here’s how it works:

Decide how much time you want to dedicate to list making. I’ll often devote 20 to 30 minutes at the beginning or end of a class. You may, instead, decide to use one prompt per day as a writing warm up. I introduce the activity by explaining that I will read prompts one at a time and give students five minutes to respond to each one. Some prompts are silly, while others are quite thoughtful. Students are not expected to write full sentences. No one cares about grammar, punctuation or spelling. This is about idea generation only. Oh, and there are two very important rules:

Everyone participates.
No one judges anyone else’s work.

I encourage students to make the lists in their writing notebooks so they can revisit these ideas or prompts from time to time.

This activity works well with high school and college students. With minor adjustments, it could be used with any age level. You may find certain prompts are better suited to your students; pick and choose which you use. Better yet, develop your own prompts.

So, let’s get started making some lists

  1. What are THREE things people would be surprised to learn about you?
  2. If/when you become a parent, what FIVE things do you vow never to do or say?
  3. Who are the THREE people from history (living or dead) that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you ask?
  4. If you could only speak FIFTEEN words for the rest of your life, what would those words be?
  5. If you had THREE wishes, what would they be? (No, you cannot ask for more wishes.)
  6. Write a list of TWENTY things that make you happy.
  7. Which FIVE celebrities would you like to invite to a party? Why?
  8. If you could only eat THREE foods for the rest of your life, what would they be? Why?
  9. What TEN places would you most like to visit?
  10. You have been named ruler of the world. What FIVE changes will you make first?
  11. Emergency evacuation. You must leave your home within the next few minutes. Which FIVE possessions do you take with you?
  12. What are THREE lies you’ve told recently?
  13. What are your FOUR favorite things to do with your family?
  14. What are your FOUR least favorite things to do with your family?
  15. Some words just roll on the tongue. What are your TEN favorite words to say?
  16. What are your FIVE biggest pet peeves?
  17. You are adrift at sea – no land in sight. What THREE people do you want in your boat? Why?
  18. What are your top FIVE life goals?
  19. Imagine you’ve just been given a litter of FIVE adorable puppies. What names do you give them?
  20. What are TEN words you hope no one ever uses to describe you?

When you’re done with your list-making activity, you may find some students are dying to share their lists. That’s fine. Just don’t force anyone to share anything they don’t want to – otherwise they’ll begin to edit their brainstorming.

Encourage students to think about ways in which some of these prompts lend themselves to future writing. Words that are fun to say, for example, might find their way into a poem. Or, thinking about least favorite family activities could turn into a funny short story.

Where will list making take you?

Developing a Writing Habit

Quite often, when I tell a stranger what I do, they follow up with something to the effect of “I wish I was a better writer” or “What I wouldn’t give to be able to write.”

The truth is, there are few shortcuts in this business. That’s because much of improving your writing has to do with writing more. It’s like running. You’re probably not going to become an Olympic marathoner if you only run once or twice a month or even a week.

To become really accomplished at something, you must practice it on a regular basis. Yes, I’m talking about writing daily or almost daily. If you want to jumpstart your writing, you need to create a writing habit.

If you’re not already writing every day, I suggest you start building this new habit by taking baby steps – otherwise it won’t be sustainable. Think about weight loss. You may see someone who lost 50 pounds and you think, “Hey, I want to do that – by Thanksgiving!” So, you cut everything out of your diet but water and lettuce and you exercise three times a day. Within a week, you will inevitably burn out and eat an entire chocolate cake by yourself.

That’s because the changes you tried to make and the way in which you tried to make them were unrealistic.

If you want writing to become a habit, focus on starting with five minutes per day. Every single person I know has five extra minutes. Deciding you want to begin a new habit is the easy part. Making this habit a reality can be a challenge.

Author James Clear wrote a book called Transform Your Habits, in which he refers to the “Three Rs” of habit building:

  1. Remind
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

You want to write every day. You intend to write every day. But you keep forgetting to do it. That’s where “Remind” comes in. Clear suggests making a list of things you do every single day: Get in the shower, put your shoes on, brush your teeth, sit down for dinner, and so forth.

Once you’ve made your list, identify which of these activities will best serve as a trigger for your writing habit. I take a morning walk every day, rain or shine; the fresh air does my brain some good and I choose to write as soon as I get home. You may decide it works better to have a journal next to your bed and writing first thing in the morning or just before you go to sleep is the ideal time for you. Remember: We’re only talking about five minutes.

The Reminder will get you writing. Then, bam, you’re suddenly at Step 2: “Routine.” By taking the time to write, you are developing a writing routine. Do it today, tomorrow, the next day. A 1960s cosmetic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz wrote a self-help book called Psycho-Cybernetics. In the book he claimed it took 21 days to create a habit. Unfortunately, he made that claim without any scientific testing. Research conducted by a team at the University College London in 2009 suggests that, on average, it takes doing something for 66 consecutive days to make it a habit. Keep at it. Before you know it, you’ll find those five minutes are such an integral part of your day that you’ll feel like something is missing if you skip a day.

Step 3 of this habit-forming process may feel silly, but it’s important because of the ways in which the human brain responds to “Reward.” We all want to keep doing things that make us feel good.

Your reward can be whatever you want. Maybe it’s telling yourself, “Well done.” Or, you can decide to reward yourself with a cup of tea or a bite of chocolate. Maybe it’s as simple as a calendar on your bathroom mirror, where you make hash marks every time you write. Tell yourself that when you collect 20 or 30 hash marks that you’ll buy yourself a new journal or take yourself out for lunch.

The first time you sit down to write, it’s probably going to feel awkward – especially if it’s something you don’t currently do often. But, like running, it will get easier over time. After a while, you’ll find you don’t struggle to think of things to write about. In fact, you’ll start to collect ideas as you go about the rest of your day. You may even decide to stretch those five minutes into 10 or 20.

Baby steps. The important thing is to write.

Not sure what to write about? Here are five-minute prompts to get you through your first week of daily writing:

  1. Write about one of these firsts: Your first day of school, your first kiss, or your first broken heart.
  2. Write about a lie you told. Why did you tell it? When was the lie revealed/discovered?
  3. You’ve been invited to dinner at a famous person’s home. As the meal progresses, it becomes obvious the famous person is trying to   kill you. Write the scene
  4. Write a breakup letter. You can write to a boy/girlfriend, a toxic friend, an annoying neighbor, a bad habit – anything/one you need to break up with.
  5. Write something – anything – using this as your first line: They had been hiding in the closet for hours.
  6. Write about your happiest birthday ever. What made it spectacular?
  7. Describe yourself at age 5. What did you look like? Who were your friends? What did you like to do? What were you afraid of?

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Whenever writers say they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. Real life can be a real inspiration.

Blame my roots in journalism, but I love the news. I read at least one newspaper daily – a real, paper copy – and I’m forever sending myself links to news magazines and websites. I’m not reporting on the events I’m reading about, but rather I’m looking for tidbits – thought-provoking nuggets that can spawn bigger stories. When I find something that interests me, I clip it or print it out and stick it in my idea file. I’m especially drawn to crazy crime stories, but the file contains a wide variety of real-life inspiration that I thumb through from time to time:

  • Teva, the company known for its outdoor footwear, made its largest pair of sandals ever – for Shanthi, a 41-year-old arthritic elephant who lives at the National Zoo. The sandals reportedly make it easier for the 9,000-pound pachyderm to walk around.
  • A 2007 clipping details the almost unbelievable unraveling of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. As she drove, she disguised herself with a dark wig, glasses and trench coat and wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop.
  • Two Kentucky men were arrested in 2016 after they accidentally called 911 while sitting in their car, discussing plans to rob a local restaurant. The dispatcher listened to their conversation and police were able to intervene.
  • A burglar got stuck in a chimney while trying to break into a home in Huron, California, in November 2015. The man was discovered when the homeowner returned and lit the fireplace. Bad luck turned into horrible luck; the would-be thief died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.

Will I ever write a novel about star-crossed NASA lovers? Probably not. But the intimate details of that account – the ways in which Nowak became so obsessed with “the other woman” – could well find their way into another story. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of my characters butt-dials 911 and accidently confesses a crime.

Real life doesn’t have to be outrageous to be inspirational. I have journals filled with notes about people I’ve known or observed: How they dressed, wore their hair, talked, walked:

  • The high school classmate who always ate dessert first, in case she “ran out of room.”
  • The teammate whose softball uniform was so tight she confessed she had to shimmy into it while it was wet and let it dry on her body overnight.
  • The college Latin professor who carried a satchel, and wore a tight black turtleneck sweater and black leather pants to every class for a year.
  • My grandfather, who dressed in worn chambray shirts and drank one beer each summer – an Old Milwaukee to celebrate the end of haying season.

Those types of traits, those tiny details breathe life into fictional characters.

It’s not complicated. It’s real life. Observe it. Make notes about it. Use it the next time you need a little inspiration.