Writing Prompt (Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Writing prompt
Photographs and works of art can serve as writing prompts. Consider this photo of people crossing flood waters after a torrential rain in Manila, Philippines (August 2012). Does the image spark any ideas that you think might be developed in a narrative or descriptive essay?. Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

A writing prompt is a brief passage of text (or sometimes an image) that provides a potential topic idea or starting point for an original essay, report, journal entry, story, poem, or other forms of writing. Writing prompts are commonly used in the essay portions of standardized tests, but they may also be devised by the writers themselves.

A writing prompt, according to Garth Sundem and Kristi Pikiewicz, usually has "two basic components: the prompt itself and directions explaining what the students should do with it." (Writing in the Content Areas, 2006)

Examples and Observations

"Today is Kiss and Make Up Day, a day to fix relationships that need mending.
"Prompt. Have you ever been in an argument with a friend or a member of your family? What was the disagreement over? How did you resolve it?"
(Jacqueline Sweeney, Prompt a Day!: 360 Thought-Provoking Writing Prompts Keyed to Every Day of the School Year. Scholastic, 1998)

Elicting Insightful Responses

"Responses to writing prompts are typically more insightful than if a teacher allows students to simply write for a certain amount of time without specifying a topic."
(Jacalyn Lund and Deborah Tannehill, Standards-Based Physical Education Curriculum Development, 2nd ed. Jones and Bartlett, 2010)

Touching on Experiences

"Two characteristics of engaging . . . writing prompts are that they touch on experiences accessible to the students, and they allow for multiple ways to write an answer."
(Stephen P. Balfour, "Teaching Writing and Assessment Skills."Improving Writing and Thinking Through Assessment, ed. by Teresa L. Flateby. IAP. 2011)

Writing Prompt for 'An Initiation'

"For the first assignment in the course, I'd like you to write a personal narrative that tells us something about who you are or what your interests are. The audience for this paper is the instructor and the class and the purpose is to introduce yourself to us in a way that will help all of us get to know each other. Be sure to include specific details that show rather than tell. Consult your class notes about writing successful narratives. Your narrative should be two to four pages long."
(Julie Neff-Lippman in Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing, 2nd ed., by Irene L. Clark. Routledge, 2012)

Understanding Writing Prompts

"To help build students' skill in reading and understanding a prompt, you should spend a class period analyzing two prompts by discussing the kinds of questions students need to ask themselves as they plan a writing response. . . .
1. What form of writing is the prompt asking for?
2. What ideas or arguments will the reader expect you to suggest? Would these points be good paragraph topics?
3. What does the prompt expect you to do?
4. Who is the audience for this essay?
5. Write a quick one-sentence answer to each question asked in the prompt. Use these answers to develop your outline and thesis."
(Sydell Rabin, Helping Students Write to a Prompt. Scholastic, 2002)

Responding to Writing Prompts on the SAT

"Topics for writing prompts tend to be broad, open-ended, and adaptable enough for any test-taker to find something to write about. Remember that you will not need any specific subject matter knowledge to answer the question. The excerpt in this sample is a typical example:
The role of advertising is to induce people to buy goods and services. Advertising is neither moral nor immoral. It is ethically neutral. The writing prompt will most likely be based on a statement or a quotation. In order to answer the question that follows, you must understand what the excerpt is about. However, if you can't figure out the meaning or aren't sure, don't worry. The test-writers tell you the issue in the assignment.
"However, don't ignore the excerpt. You may find some phrases that you can use in your essay. Referring back to the excerpt by paraphrasing it or using some words from it can be an effective technique."
(Margaret Moran, Master Writing for the SAT: What You Need for Test Success. Peterson's, 2008)

Expository and Persuasive Writing Prompts

"An expository prompt asks you to define, explain, or tell how to do something. The following is an example of an expository writing prompt. Most people have a favorite season or time of year. Write an essay describing your favorite season. Discuss what makes that season special to you. "A persuasive prompt asks you to convince the reader to accept your opinion or to take a specific action. The following is an example of a persuasive writing prompt.
To cut back on expenses, your principal has asked the school board for permission to cancel all field trips for the remainder of the year. Some people think this is a good idea because they consider a field trip a 'vacation' from learning and therefore an unnecessary expense. Write to the school board explaining your position on the issue. Use facts and examples to develop your argument." (J. Brice and Dana Passananti, OGT Ohio Graduation Test: Reading and Writing. Research & Education Association, 2007)

Photographs as Writing Prompts

"Keep in mind that students from diverse cultures may respond differently or not relate at all to some photos, especially when the photos are of unfamiliar objects, places, or people. As you select photographs to share as prompts for this activity, make sure you introduce them to your students and allow students to ask questions they might have about them. If you find that some students are so puzzled by a photograph that using it as a writing prompt would be counterproductive, then select an alternative photo for students to describe."
(David Campos and Kathleen Fad, Tools for Teaching Writing: Strategies and Interventions for Diverse Learners in Grades 3-8. ASCD, 2014)

Sources of Writing Prompts

"On occasions I invite participants in my [writing] group to open the dictionary to a word, any word, and offer it to the next person as her prompt, and so on, around the room with each writer receiving a different word to write from. And I never read anything without a notebook by my side or sticky notes within reach. You never know when the perfect prompt will appear. . . .
"The real world can also be a source for writing prompts. I jot down phrases I hear during the day (a writer always eavesdrops), or something I've seen scrawled on a building ('This Is the Last Time'), or notes from a menu at lunch (juice from the ripest berries). . . . Even directions on a cereal box have served as a writing prompt for my drop-in group ('Slide finger under the flap and loosen gently'). Faulkner said there's a bit of the scavenger in every writer. This is what we do when we're collecting inspiration."
(Judy Reeves, Writing Alone, Writing Together: A Guide for Writers and Writing Groups. New World Library, 2002)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Writing Prompt (Composition)." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/writing-prompt-composition-1692451. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, March 3). Writing Prompt (Composition). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/writing-prompt-composition-1692451 Nordquist, Richard. "Writing Prompt (Composition)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/writing-prompt-composition-1692451 (accessed March 22, 2023).