Figuring Out What to Write When you DON'T Have a Prompt

Figuring Out What to Write When you DON'T Have a Prompt

A few semesters ago, when I was leaving a class with my friend after just getting assigned a paper without being given a prompt, my friend expressed to me that she greatly preferred not getting prompts.

“I don’t know, sometimes I feel lost when I don’t have a prompt,” I said.

“I may be lost but at least I’m free,” she said.

Not getting a prompt can be a very scary thing. Some people feel like the lack of direction is daunting, but, like my friend said, it can also be freeing. It can be an opportunity for you to explore and to write about a topic that truly interests you.

1. Look over your notes and your annotations and highlighted material in your texts for passages or moments in the text that greatly struck you the first time you read them.

2. Re-read these starred or highlighted sections and try to figure out why these sections were so interesting to you.

If you can, focus on one passage and formulate questions.

Move from basic questions like, what is going on, plot-wise during this section? What significant events led to this moment?, to more complex questions: Are there any themes that are addressed in this passage? What kind of imagery is being used? What is the tone of the passage? What is interesting or weird, or strange about this passage? How does this moment speak to other events or moments in the text? What does this passage reveal?

Here’s an example of some questions formulated from a passage in Nella Larsen’s Passing:

In the scene on page 64 where Irene responds to Clare’s unexpected visit, Irene exclaims, “‘Oh dear! Tell her, Zulena,’ Irene began, ‘that I can’t—No I’ll see her. Please bring her up here.’” What is intriguing in Irene’s conflicted response? Does her denial and then immediate acquiescence bring up issues of intention versus execution? What does her curious response reveal about the complexity of Irene’s feelings towards Clare? Does this no, then yes response speak to Irene’s infatuation with Clare, her inability to deny her? Throughout the novel, Irene has a very conflicted relationship to Clare, at once hypnotized and repulsed by her.

Jennifer Nishizaki (adapted from John Herbstritt, “When There Are No Prompts,” Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley, ©2006 UC Regents)
Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley
©2009 UC Regents

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