Write On! Get Un-Stuck Through These Simple Prompts

Unstuck writingAlthough Nike popularized the notion of “Just Do It,” the principle of getting going—and getting out of your own way in the process—cuts across so many aspects of life.

In writing, one of the best ways to “just write it” is to begin with a prompt. It’s sort of the brainstorming equivalent of jumping jacks, neck rolls and shoulder swings—those physical warm-up motions that get the body moving and geared up for the main athletic endeavor to follow.

My favorite memory, in the writing-prompt department, came during the Summer of 1985 as a student (euphemistically known as a “cherub”) in the journalism division of the National High School Institute at Northwestern University.

The session, as best I can recall, was designed to show how only a few words could really set you on your way—and it also illustrated the vast variety of stories that could flow from the same prompt. The prompt: “I love you, but…”

In creating news releases or any other marketing communication, your lead will occasionally come to mind right away. More often, it will lurk somewhere deeper in the copy, as long as you give yourself the space to get that deep.

In that spirit, and using a similar phrase as the one noted above from nearly 30 years ago, let’s surmount three roadblocks that people routinely place into the path of prompt-based writing:

I love the idea of prompt-based writing, but where do I begin?

That’s precisely the point: you start with the prompt. Then don’t stop, censor or slow yourself down. Keep the fingers moving on the keyboard or, better yet, keep the writing instrument flowing on the page as you discover what’s inside in your mind and let it come out.

Many a creative story has been sabotaged by initial inertia. It’s common to everyone—so stick with it long enough to get on the avenue to creative story-telling.

I love the idea of prompt-based writing, but how do I choose my prompt?

Choose only a few words, the simpler the better. to get the ball rolling:

“Today is….”

“The biggest myth about my work is…”

“One thing people don’t realize….”

“When I woke up today…”

If you are writing a news release, and find yourself stuck, then begin with a simple sentence that would never qualify as your finished product. What it does is help you flesh out the central gist of whatever story you are looking to tell: the challenges encountered, the problems solved, the distinctive qualities that set your client apart from the pack.

I love the idea of prompt-based writing, but what if it ends up being a meandering mess?

Actually, the odds are pretty decent that you will go off on some tangents. But a certain thread of writing only gets labeled as a tangent when you have identified the ultimate focus of your writing.

Tangents are a critical element of the process. They reflect the improvisational nature of life, including the unscripted reality of what occurs in most any interaction with others.

Likewise, tangents in our writing serve a vital function because without them we wouldn’t have so much confidence and clarity about our main point.

Writing is simply a precursor to editing, which comes only after you have something to work with, to whittle down and otherwise to whip into shape. In other words, just write it—then re-write it and re-write it again.

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Wildcat Winning Streak Illustrates Ease, Effectiveness of Passage-of-Time Storyline Hooks

Over the years, as I have hired people to work on client projects, one of the quickest ways I can weed out weak story-tellers from the strong is to see what they do with “a layup.”

In other words, when there’s an easy shot at exploring a creative way to tell a story, does the writer go for it? Or do they write a lead that could have been written by a green journalist trying his or her hand with the high school newspaper?

The “long passage of time since…” storyline is one example that lends itself to expending a little extra effort and devoting a few minutes of artistic contemplation. Some examples:

*Your subject has been working for decades in a given field.

*A relationship of some kind began a long, long time ago–and is either ending or hitting a milestone.

*A person or an organization is duplicating (or surpassing) a feat that hasn’t been done in quite some time.

A current story embodied by the last example is the resurgence of the Northwestern University men’s basketball team. After a frustrating 1-10 start, the squad just won its fourth consecutive Big Ten game, a 72-67 win over Indiana.

Now, getting off to difficult starts is nothing new for the program: in 1987-88, when I covered the Bill Foster-led program for The Daily Northwestern, the Wildcats went 2-16 in the conference, although one of those wins was a huge upset against defending NCAA champion Indiana.

(Side note: that triumph came a day after I wrote debatably one of my hokiest leads ever, in which I forecast it might be a long night for the Cats–“as in Bobby Knight,” the Hoosiers’ coach. Ouch.)

1988-1 NU Vs Indiana hoops preview-Long KnightBut back to our main point: this business of winning four consecutive games in the conference. That’s not setting the sports world on fire. Teams do it almost every year, right? Or, with some struggling programs, maybe it’s every five or 10 years.

So I was shocked to learn that it had been not a decade or even a few decades–but nearly a half century since NU had done it. To be precise, it had been 47 years, a point that I first came across in a mischievous Tweet about NU’s coach by the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein:

Teddy G Tweet

That’s pretty young. It’s actually pre-young.

For my first dozen years as a journalist, before the Internet really took hold, having a working knowledge of history was especially useful in coming up with anecdotes that underscored the passage of time. And now, with history beckoning at the touch of a few keystrokes, there is no excuse for any journalist, publicist or other professional story-teller to deliver a bland lead that fails to tap into historical context.

In less than 10 seconds, Google told me that The Beatles began recording A Day in the Life when Northwestern last reeled off a four-game conference winning streak. What can you do with a few minutes? Arts, culture, politics, sports, and any number of other topics are teeming with history that can be woven into that and other stories.

As story-tellers, when we have these opportunities to dramatize a protracted period of time that is central to our tale, we owe it to our audience to be at least as good as the Wildcats have been of late: let’s make our layups.

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