How to Use the Dictionary to Discover New Writing Prompts

Beat writer's block with these easy exercise

Person reading dictionary
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Writer's block is the rule rather than the exception—we all run headfirst into it from time to time. Sometimes new words can prompt entirely new directions for your writing when you're blocked. Let chance lead you to the words—then to themes and stories—that you might not have arrived at on your own.

The Dictionary Challenge

Open the dictionary to a random page, then point to a place on that page with your eyes closed or averted. Open your eyes and write that word down at the top of a piece of paper.

Now repeat the process two more times so you have three words at the top of your paper. Set a timer for 15 minutes and free write, incorporating each of your three words into the piece. Try not to judge or edit your writing—just keep the pen moving or keep your fingers flying on the keyboard. Write the entire time, even if you feel stuck or frustrated.

Stop writing when the timer rings and evaluate your words. Have they generated a theme or an idea that you might not have written about otherwise?

If so, revise that piece or a portion of it into a story, a prose poem, or a poem.

Feel free to discard it and try again if nothing grabs you. Your first attempt might just be a warm-up exercise.

Some Options

Writing is a pursuit that can be unique to your own strengths. You have the flexibility to fall back on those strengths. Consider some variations that might work better for you.

  • On the other hand, 15 minutes might not be enough time, so feel free to give yourself more.
  • Don't beat yourself up if the words you've found don't lead to anything that inspires you. The idea here is to get writing. You've already succeeded simply by doing so for the full 15 minutes.
  • You can also try this exercise with different books—it doesn't have to be a dictionary. Any book will do, but books that contain words, phrases, or themes that very different from your own writing might have the best effect.

The most important thing is to spend time focusing on language and to write something new. Follow the rules only if they help you do the exercise.

Branch Out

It's not all about the written word. Visual media can get your brain juices flowing, too. Don't overlook the value of artwork and films to re-inspire you when you hit a wall.

Pluck a character out of your current project, or invent a new one, then drop her down into some imaginable circumstance and begin writing about how she gets out of the predicament. You can do the same thing using yourself as the protagonist and various scenarios and circumstances.

Get into the habit of writing down your dreams. Journals can be excellent writing tools if you stretch yourself. Include quotes—not necessarily famous or renowned ones, but things others said to you during the course of the day. How did you feel about that? Ask yourself how your fictional character would feel and react, then write that down, too.

You don't have to write a tome in any of these scenarios. Keep it short and sweet—a paragraph, or at most a page. Remember, this is just an exercise. Your real work awaits you.