Why I Still Love a Good Writing Prompt, Decades into My Writing Career

Craft Week: Ask Me Anything

Michelle Richmond
The Caffeinated Writer
5 min readDec 28, 2023


from my recent DIY writing retreat in the Batignolles neighborhood of Paris

Over at The Caffeinated Writer Substack, we’re having Craft Week, wherein I invite readers to ask me anything. If it’s about writing and publishing (the one thing I know a lot about), I’ll answer. If it’s about coffee, I’ll answer. And if it’s about anything else, I may or may not answer. (I did get a question about marriage, for which the answer will soon be forthcoming).

One great question that came to me today was about my What to Write This Week series. In the series, I provide a weekly brief reading that can be found online, along with a writing prompt inspired by the reading. The prompt is often for flash fiction or flash memoir — a form I find to be creatively invigorating.

Sitting down to “write a novel” or “write a story” may feel daunting, but setting aside a half hour to dash off a flash fiction is doable for most writers. And really, sitting down and opening the empty Word doc is the hard part. With What to Write, I want to get writers to open the computer or the notebook and write the first sentence or two or three, because after that, you are often glued to your chair — to the detriment of your physical health but to the advantage of your writing.

So, the question that came to me today, from fellow Medium writer and longtime editor and journalist Karl Muller, was this (this is an excerpt; you can read the entire question over at the original post):

…with so much shit going on in the world, why do people find it so hard to find things to write about? If you’ve lived some life and have something to say, it makes finding the words so much easier. It also makes it easier to ask relevant questions about writing technique and the best ways to express something effectively.

I find truth in these words. Yes, we have all lived some life. Yes, we all have something to say.

Here is my response:

Thank you for your question, Karl. I’ll try to answer it with an anecdote. A few years ago, a friend reached out to me and asked me to write a short story for an anthology he was editing for Akashic Books, titled Alabama Noir. I was living in Paris at the time, writing about daily life in Paris. Being in a city that remained foreign to me in many ways, even years into living there, always provided a wellspring of necessary friction that gave me endless ideas. I was also working on a couple of novels.

A few months passed, and I didn’t write the story for Alabama Noir. It had a couple of specific parameters, and I wasn’t sure how to approach it. As the deadline loomed, I thought about something that had long been on my mind. It had to do with the murder of a politician who has, through his actions, made likely the murder of countless others. So I sat down and wrote the short story over a period of a few days, titled “What Brings You Back Home,” and that story gave me an idea for a novel.

For me, having an “assignment,” even at this late stage in my career, helped me to write something I certainly wouldn’t have written, in that particular form, otherwise. If this editor had not asked for a noir story set in Alabama, the short story never would have come to be.

The same was true for another commissioned story. An editor asked me to write a story for CNet’s “Technically Literate” — the story had to be centered on tech in some way. What came out of that assignment was the short story “The Last Taco Truck in Silicon Valley.” I live near Silicon Valley, my husband worked there for years, I love taco trucks, and we sometimes lamented their demise and all that meant. But had I not gotten that “assignment,” that particular story would have never come to be.

And the same can be said for a story I was asked to write by Amy Grace Lloyd, then the fiction editor of Playboy Magazine. She asked if I could send her a short story. I’d had an essay in Playboy but never a short story, and I loved the idea of being in the magazine that had published many of the most iconic writers of the twentieth century, including Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Atwood, and Nabokov. So I had to come up with an idea that would be literary but would also push the boundaries in a way that would appeal to the fiction editor of Playboy and to the magazine’s readers: the result was a story called “An Exciting New Career in Medicine,” which, again, would not have existed otherwise. (The story appears in my 2014 collection, Hum).

All of this to say: the “What to Write This Week” series doesn’t exist because I think people don’t have ideas. Yes, ideas exist in the ether. They come to us through reading and walking and living and observing. I trust that writers have ideas. But an assignment or prompt spurs you to write something that would not have otherwise existed. A writer may have many ideas, but a specific prompt will lead to the creation of a thing that wouldn’t have otherwise leapt to mind.

I would add that the students in my writing classes, many of whom are writers with published novels and story collections to their names, have a similar experience of coming up with something new in response to a writing prompt.

I’m curious: do you enjoy writing prompts? Do you think they have a place beyond the creative writing classroom? Do you have a piece of writing you like — a story, essay, flash fiction, or otherwise — that arose from a writing prompt?

And if you like the idea of a weekly-ish prompt, you can subscribe to What to Write This Week to get a writing assignment every now and then in your inbox.

As always, happy writing!

Michelle Richmond

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels and two story collections. She helps writers complete their first novels through the nine-month novel writing program Novel in Nine, which is now open for enrollment for 2024.