One-Word Writing Prompts

Years ago at George Middle School (Portland, Oregon), the teachers were allowed to teach something we were passionate about. The class would be twice a week, right after lunch, for just 20 minutes. I was a science teacher at the school and asked if I may teach “writing for writing.” My principal reacted with slightly more enthusiasm than my [male] colleague’s “The Simpsons.”

I had a simple plan:

  1. Given a prompt, we write for 5 minutes. It’s imperative that I write along with my students.
  2. We share aloud what we’d written, only if we choose to.
  3. We also share what we’d like to do next with our 5-minute piece:
    • scrap it
    • add it to an existing piece of writing
    • save it for whatever whenever
    • get feedback on it

Typically, writing prompts come in the form of questions. Here are the first three of “34 Quick Writing Prompts for Middle School Students” from Journal Buddies:

  1. What does the city sound like at night?
  2. What is the coolest thing that can be found in nature?
  3. How can you tell whether or not someone will be a good friend?

These are fine, of course. But personally, I either don’t have a lot to say about the prompt or I don’t care. And it’s hard to think of a question that everyone cares about or have copious thoughts on. Let me try the above prompts right now, as if I were a middle schooler.

What does the city sound like at night?

The city is quiet at night. Though I’m not sure why I’m in the city at night when I should really be in bed at home. I’m a kid. Sure, there are times when I can’t fall asleep or I wake up in the middle of the night. But it’s still pretty quiet at night. Sometimes I can hear my Dad snore. (Or is that my Mom?) If only it would rain each night because that’s the best sound to fall asleep to. But then I think about the homeless people. It sucks to be homeless, so for them, night rain is probably the worst…

What is the coolest thing that can be found in nature?

The coolest thing that can be found in nature is… I don’t really know. I’m not sure if it’s the “coolest” thing or even just “cool,” but I like flowers and plants. I pay attention to them whenever I’m walking around outside. My favorite house is always the one with lots of flowers, especially when they are overflowing in window boxes. They don’t require a lot to grow, not like what my two cats and dog require. I like flowers that smell good.

How can you tell whether or not someone will be a good friend?

I can tell that someone will be a good friend because they are not bad. But I’ve been wrong lots of times before. They start out all nice and friendly, they say the right words and do the right things, then they just turn. Sometimes they turn so quickly that I have no clue what happened. It’s like they have an “R” gear for “reverse” and they just shifted into that gear and ran you over. I guess there are no guarantees whether or not a person will be a good friend. Look at all the divorces and breakups! It’s best to just take one day at a time.

Weary that a question prompt might not elicit interest or intrigue and having to hear them whine pitch perfect, “But I don’t know anything about that,” I give only one-word prompts.

  • tiny
  • red
  • outside
  • wax
  • intelligence
  • breakfast
  • sand
  • scream
  • pale
  • rain

My goal was writing for writing. I wanted the pen or pencil to move across the page for five minutes. I wanted the shitty first drafts. Any more than that one-word prompt might inadvertently restrict, if not constrict, their thoughts. I wanted them to feel free to write freely about the color “ecru,” the noun “home,” the verb “shrink,” the adjective, “dull.” They wrote wildly, ferociously, thoughtfully. So did I.

Mainly, I didn’t want any student of mine to feel the way this perennial prompt made me feel through all the school years, “What did you do last summer?”

Eventually, I got tired of lying about the trips that my family couldn’t afford to take and left my paper blank.

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