Skip to main content

Using Writing Prompts Exercises to Express Yourself

I used this as the background image of the flyer I made to announce the class.

I used this as the background image of the flyer I made to announce the class.

My start in writing prompts

I caught the writing bug in the fourth grade. Back then essays and creative writing were a regular part of our curriculum. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Ball, put up one or more photographs from magazines and told us to write a story. I thought it was great fun and I was always eager to get started.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher Mr. Crosby gave us all types of writing prompts; the most frequent was to just pick a topic, or person, place, or thing, and write a short story or essay. Sometimes Mr. Crosby would give a starting sentence, sometimes with a photo added, and tell us to write a short story. Sometimes he would make the challenge even more specific by telling us to make it first, second, or third person. I couldn't get enough of Mr. Crosby's writing prompt assignments. It was the highlight of my week. When my mom went in for a parent/teacher conference once, he told her I had a gift and to encourage me in it. My mom became my biggest fan, encourager, and cheerleader. When I brought home my work, she and dad both made a big deal about it. My mom would brag about me to friends and family (parents, please do this for your children). Thus began my lifelong love and pursuit of writing.

Express yourself workshop

A couple of years ago I interned at an organization that helps people with disabilities. I worked in the wellness department with people with mental health challenges, as a peer. All the groups, workshops, and activities were geared to foster wellness and recovery. I came up with an idea for a workshop called Express Yourself. The purpose of the workshop was to give ourselves (I lead in a very small way but participated as a group member) a vehicle to express ourselves - emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and ideas. The way it worked was I would give a writing prompt and we were to write something that would express those things.

Here were the rules:

  • No critiquing. Quality and skill in writing was not the goal, as it might be in a writing group or creative writing class. We were writing for expression; thus there was no right or wrong.
  • Comments or feedback were allowed, by permission of the writer who shared only. Comments were to show appreciation for how the writing exercise shared resonated or helped someone somehow. Discussion took time away from the purpose of the class - writing - so comments were to be very brief. An example would be: "Jennifer, your description of ____ made me feel like I wanted to be there." Or, "Eric, I could feel the feelings you were describing." Or "Diane, that so resonated with me. It makes me realize I am not the only one, nor alone."
  • Because we wanted the workshop to be a safe place, none of the following content could be used-

    1) Erotic content. The reason was partially personal - I find erotic material offensive (as might others). Erotic content is a loose cannon, people can get carried away. Some people may be triggered by it as well. And as it was a mixed group, it could open the door to some bad, unhealthy situations.

    2) Descriptions of abuse of any kind (especially of a sexual nature). The reason being that some who come through the doors may have suffered serious trauma in life, some with a resulting PTSD diagnosis (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Content about abuse could exacerbate someone's trauma and PTSD symptoms.

    3) Substance use. I think this is obvious - to prevent encouraging, glorifying, or triggering substance use and abuse.

    4) Racist or otherwise bigoted comments. The reasons are obvious.

  • The workshop was not for processing trauma and other psychological issues; it was simply to learn a way to express feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and ideas in the moment or current season of life.
  • No one was required to share what they'd written. Although it was helpful to others, the most important thing was that we had a chance to express ourselves in the written word. Privacy was highly respected. One or two people, sometimes more, always ended up volunteering to share. No one was to comment to another group member for not sharing.

I kept the class to 45 minutes, not wanting to tire everyone else. All prompts were given a time limit.

I used a wide variety of writing prompts with varied instructions. Here is a partial list:

  • Free writing - using a photo, a key word, a phrase, an idea, or no prompt at all - just spontaneous expression. Free writing is writing without stopping for a time limit (I usually made it 5 or 10 minutes), with no concern for anything - spelling, grammar, deep thought, clarity, structure, nor anything but what comes out in the moment. Free writing is a good warm-up tool, and an icebreaker, if you will. People arrive with a lot on their minds, a lot of emotions going on (good, bad, or somewhere in between).
  • One or multiple photo prompts - have them choose one, and write in a designated time period and space how that photo makes them feel, what it reminds them of, or to put themselves in the situation of the photo. For example, I could offer four photos of a weather situation - one rainy, one sunny, one snowy, one stormy - and tell them to insert themselves into the photo and write what they were feeling, or what was happening. The sky is the limit with what you can do with photo prompts.
  • Give one or two beginning sentences, or a phrase - and complete by whatever comes to mind. They could do prose, poetry, brief story, or just word descriptions. An example would be: "I just hate it when...," or "It always cracks me up when...," or "I entered my bedroom and saw the window open. I hadn't opened the window. It made me feel (or think, wonder)..."
  • One word prompts- give one word and have them write something. There are several ways to do this. An example might be to have them write how that one word would describe them and why.
  • Fill in the blanks. Example: "Whenever I hear (see, feel, or taste) ______ it makes me feel _____.
  • Tell us - Example: Tell us what your favorite color is and why.

These are just a few examples. If you are a creative sort, you can come up with a gazillion ideas. You can also find prompt ideas online if you get stuck.

This class was very well received and attended. I found immeasurable benefit from it, as did the others.

Try your hand at a photo prompt

How about trying a photo prompt. Using the photos below and using the same rules we had in our workshop (reread them above) write your prompt in the comments section. *Note each photo has a number below it.

Exercise # 1

For photo # 1 -using only one word each, make a list of 5 physical sensations, and 5 emotions you might feel in this situations.

Exercise # 2

From Photo 2 - what emotions or memories does this photo elicit. Share in one one or two paragraphs.

hands friendship

Exercise # 3

From photo 3 - if you are the man in the puzzle, are the puzzle pieces falling out or filling in? Briefly say why that is.

Scroll to Continue
Photo # 3

Photo # 3

Exercise # 4

From photos 4 and 5 - which photo resonates more with how life is for you at this time? Give a brief answer in 3 or 4 short paragraphs or less.

Photo # 4

Photo # 4

Exercise # 5

From photo 6 - Describe the feeling evoked and tell of a time you felt like this. Keep it to 3 paragraphs if possible.


Exercise # 6

From Photo 7 - Write whatever comes to mind.

The stigma of mental illness can leave one feeling different and alone.

One word prompts

Below is a list of 3 categories with 4 word choices below them. For each category, pick which word you feel most describes you and why. If none of them seem to fit, choose which you would most like or least like to be or be like and why. Be brief.


  1. Mary Poppins
  2. Joan Rivers
  3. Rocky Balboa
  4. Charlie Brown


  1. New York City
  2. By a cozy fire
  3. A carnival
  4. A hiking trail


  1. A gift box
  2. A Bulldozer
  3. An Iceberg
  4. A Jackhammer

Do you feel like a Charlie Brown?


One or two sentence prompts

A sentence or two or a phrase is given and we were to complete it. Try these:

  • While I was tying my shoes, I noticed a slug on the toe of my right sneaker. I couldn't imagine where it came from.
  • A brutal wind assaulted my face so I ran for cover. All the buildings were closed for the evening.
  • Getting a traffic ticket always ruins my day. You would think I'd have learned by now.
  • Where would I be without you?

Fill in the blanks prompt

Without using explicit or triggering language explained in the Express Yourself Workshop section above, fill in the blanks and be very brief. You may choose all, or some categories.

  • My favorite word is ____ because ______.
  • My least favorite word is ___ because _____.
  • I love the sound of _____ because ______.
  • I love the smell of _____ because ______.
  • I love the taste of _____ because ______.
  • I hate the sound of ____ because _______.
  • I hate the smell of _____ because ______.
  • I hate the taste of _____ because _______.

Tell us prompt

Choose one of the following prompts and write about it.

  1. Name someone or something that really cracks you up and why.
  2. Choose on person you love most in the world and why.
  3. Tell what activity is most fun with your friend and why.
  4. Tell which of the situations below you prefer and why.
  • Walking in a garden.
  • Lying in the sun.
  • Drinking your first cup of coffee and reading the paper in a quiet kitchen.
  • Shopping with the girls.
  • Working out in the gym.
Walking in the garden.

Walking in the garden.

Take it to the next level

If you enjoyed any or all of these writing prompts, why not take it to the next level and write an article from your favorite prompt.

  • Use the rules from the Express Yourself Workshop section.
  • Ttile your hub: The Writing Prompt Challenge: _________ (fill in an applicable phrase).
  • Express yourself and have fun!!!

Rate that prompt


Lori Colbo (author) from United States on April 13, 2015:

Hi Jeannie, I am happy to hear you are going to widen your horizon. Writing prompts have been helping me a lot lately in the area of poetry, but fiction is one of the best ways to use prompts.

Try some free writing every day just for the practice. Of course you can use the others but free writing is a good warm up. Best wishes, my dear.

Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on April 13, 2015:

I think I should start using some writing prompts myself. Although I am good at starting a hub out of nothing, I would like to branch off into fiction. I might just give your advice a try. I have been drawing a blank lately.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on March 31, 2015:

The Express Yourself workshop sounds like a great idea. I hope other people who lead groups give it a try. It is so wonderful that you had a teacher and parents who encouraged you to write. My son, is in his 20's now, and he has started to be a bit of a writer. I tell him he is going to be the real writer in this family.

Ann Carr from SW England on March 20, 2015:

This is a great hub full of excellent suggestions. I used to use similar kinds of prompts with my dyslexic students, mostly visual as this worked best for them. I also prefer visual prompts like photos or the nature around me.

There are so many good teaching angles here, whether for groups such as yours or writing classes or fun with little ones for conversation.

Exercise 1, photo 2:

fear, exhilaration, laughter, gasping, chill, grasping, heart pounding

I'll keep the challenge in mind, though at the moment I have rather a lot going on.


Lori Colbo (author) from United States on March 16, 2015:

Ah Dora, thank you so much for partcipating. I loved your answers! The pet waste answer took me by surprise and made me laugh. Your answer about groaning and suffering brought me back to two occasions of groaning and suffering- one is mine and one is that of another. Remembering comfort I received and gave. Have a blessed day MsDora!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 16, 2015:

Lori, you put so much of your organizational skills into this article and it is really fun and interesting. I will share my answers to the "Fill in the Blank" prompt.

My favorite word is "favor" because it inspires gratitude.

Me least favorite word is "not" because it is mostly useless.

I love the sound of upbeat music because it energizes me.

I love the smell of lavender because it calms me.

I love the taste of grape juice because it is satisfying.

I hate the sound of groaning because it means someone is suffering.

I hate the smell of pet waste because I might have some cleaning to do.

I hate the taste of cooked carrots, because I'd rather eat it raw.

Lori Colbo (author) from United States on March 15, 2015:

Bill, music is a great idea! Will have to try it sometime. Thanks for your feedback!

Lori Colbo (author) from United States on March 15, 2015:

Greetings Eric, thanks for stopping by, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 15, 2015:

Music is usually my most effective prompt, followed by photos. Great prompts here, Lori. I'm saving this for future use. Thank you!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 15, 2015:

A wonderful hub. I learned a great deal and will try some out.

Related Articles