How to Use the Dictionary to Discover New Writing Prompts

Person reading dictionary
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Sometimes new words can suggest entirely new directions for your writing. Let chance lead you to words—and then to themes and stories—you might not have come to on your own. Try this exercise and see what you can come up with!

Difficulty: N/A

Time Required: at least 30 minutes

Here's How

  1. Open the dictionary up to a random page. With your eyes closed or averted, point to a random place on the page.
  2. Open your eyes and write that word down at the top of a piece of paper.
  3. Repeat the above steps two more times, so that you have three words at the top of your piece of paper.
  4. Using a timer, freewrite for 15 minutes, being sure to incorporate each of your three words into the piece. Try not to judge or edit your writing: just keep the pen moving.
  5. When the timer rings, stop writing. Evaluate what you have written. Note if the words have generated a theme or idea that you might not have written about otherwise.
  1. Revise this piece or a portion of it into a story, a prose poem, or a poem. If nothing strikes you, feel free to discard it and try again. Your first attempt may just be a warm-up exercise.
  2. Want to see this writing prompt in action? Reader James B. sent in his response to the work. His sample will show you one way to approach the writing exercise. He wrote: I actually did the exercise twice. My first go-round I got “grammarian,” “merchant,” and “ripieno.” It was hard at first, trying to work with those words, but I kept at it until I got something down. By that time, I was warmed up, so I decided to try again. I found that it helped me to use more than three words. So though technically my words this time were  Finland, deprivation, and Rio de Janeiro, I kept flipping around, just looking at different pages of the dictionary, thinking about language and free-associating until I hit on “ghost word” and then “ghostwriter.” Once I had a subject, I could start writing. The first time through I used the words exactly, but while revising it, I shortened “Rio de Janeiro” to “Rio” and changed “deprivation” to “deprived.”


  1. Write for the entire time, even if you feel stuck or frustrated. It takes some time just to warm up. On the other hand, if 15 minutes isn't enough time, give yourself more.
  2. If the words you've found don't lead to anything that inspires you, don't beat yourself up. The idea is to get you writing. You've already succeeded simply by writing for the full 15 minutes.
  3. You can also try this exercise with different books. Any book will do, but books that typically contain words, phrases, or themes very different from your own writing may have the best effect.
  1. Feel free to adapt or disregard any of the steps or rules. 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. (Check out the writing sample to see a more flexible approach.)

What You Need

  • Dictionary or other books
  • Paper
  • Pen or pencil.
  • Timer