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How to use photo prompts for writing

Photo prompts for writing - snake

Need to kick-start a writing session or break through writer’s block? Photo prompts are a great way to go.

If you’re a creative writer, you’ve probably heard of them and might have used them. If you’re a non-fiction writer or a blogger, especially if you’re just getting started, it might be a new thing.

But it’s definitely a thing. And any writer can use them. 

Here’s how photo prompts work:

1. Take a good look. An interesting photo—or one that’s deceptively simple—is the inspiration. This could be a photo you find on a writer’s site or one that’s used in a writer’s group, whether online or in person. It could even be one of your own photos, a friend’s photo, or a photo that just catches your eye.

Relax, get quiet, be mindful, and take a good look. It helps if you have as few distractions as possible.

2. Take a few minutes to absorb the details in the photo. What’s the main focal point? What’s in the foreground or background? What about color, light, and small details?

Focus on how you feel emotionally (sad, happy, afraid) or physically (energetic, relaxed, tired). What do you think of or feel like doing? Maybe the photo dredges up a memory or reminds you of someone or something. The memory might not be complete, but that’s okay.

Take a look at the snake in the photo above, and just let your imagination flow. What do you see? Hear? Touch/feel? Smell? Taste? I see danger, I hear a rattle (though it’s a puff adder, not a rattlesnake), I feel heat and gritty sand, I smell an unfamiliar earthy scent, and I taste sweat mixed with desert dust. I’m tense and afraid.

3. Allow your senses to experience the photo and, at the same time, allow words to form.

A story may start. Maybe just a phrase or a few words come to mind. What would you tell a friend? Don’t latch on to the words at a first; let them simmer a bit and get organized.

With the snake photo, you might have initial reactions that range from “OMG why did she post this?” to “Wow, cool. He’s ready to strike.” That’s fine. More will come: “I froze. Suddenly it was there right in front of me. A snake, a big snake, ready to strike. I stopped breathing . . . ”

4. Start writing, whether words form in your mind or not. Start with anything even if it’s just “This is a stupid snake.” Write whatever comes to mind, and keep writing.

If you’re stuck, try the “Five Ws Plus H” of journalism: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Even if it sounds crazy, just do it. Shut off your thinking and write.

My aunt was a hillbilly. She used to go out catching snakes in the hills of Alabama. Totally nuts. The bigger the better, and she liked finding the poisonous ones. She never got bit I don’t know why. But ever since Uncle Tom died she had this thing for snakes and she killed them. She was like 70 or something, and my mom‘s half-sister. That’s why we called her the hillbilly because she was so different because they didn’t grow up together. We felt bad for her though. She drank a lot. I think she was angry that he died and she took it out on the snakes. She was religious.

That’s what came to me just now. Why? I have no idea. I don’t even have an aunt or a relative in Alabama. Crazy, right? And in case you didn’t notice, I did absolutely no editing. This is not the time to give in to editing compulsions.

What comes to mind for you will be completely different from others and based on your own experiences and beliefs.

What can you do with freewriting like this? It might just get the creative juices flowing, and that’s it. (That’s a big thing, though, don’t you think?)

But it could be a new character, even if only a minor character. Or who knows? An entire short story might result or even a novel.

5. Keep on writing, start editing, or set it aside and get to work on something else. It all depends on your purpose. If you think you’re on to something, keep going. See how the story develops. If you’re on a roll, you might as well. Even if you set it aside for another time, it’s never wasted effort.

If it’s flash fiction and you hit your word limit, it’s editing time. Is it something you can use with some fine-tuning?

Or switch over to the writing you need to do. You might have broken through the writer’s block barrier or found new inspiration.

Is using photo prompts for writing unoriginal or cheating?

Every writer gets inspiration from different sources. It could be a neighbor, a friend, a local event or tragedy, a painting, even music or a particular song. And no two writers look at the same thing and see it the same way. It’s not cheating at all.

Check out the vastly different responses to photo prompts here. The site is closed now (and some of the photos were taken down), but they had some great flash fiction contests. I entered two.

One contest theme was “In Vino Veritas” (Truth in Wine). The photo is gone, but it looked something like this:

Photo prompts for writers

My entry didn’t win anything, but I had some nice comments. Here it is: “Not Wine.”

Silhouette” was another contest I entered. The variety in over 200 entries was fascinating. The photo prompt was much like this one:

Photo prompts for writers

Here’s my entry, which earned an honorable mention: “Offering.”

How to use photo prompts for writing blog posts

How you use photo prompts as a blogger depends on your niche and purpose. Let’s say it’s organic gardening, and you’re having trouble coming up with blog topics.

1. Browse through print or online magazines with photos. You’re sure to get some great ideas, even if writing about them requires a little research.

2. Ask friends or readers for photos. You can ask on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social media platform you hang out on.

3. Search Pinterest with appropriate keywords. Even if you don’t specifically use “organic” and stick with “gardening” in general, you’ll find plenty to get you started.

4. Try a Google search with search strings like “organic garden photos” and “organic [type] gardens” such as “organic herb gardens.” In the search results you’ll get “Images for Organic Gardens.”

5. Start a list of all the ideas that come to mind as you browse through the photos. Then choose a photo that’s promising, and start brainstorming in a similar way as above (though for you it’s more about facts and ideas rather than feelings or imagination). Take notes. What’s in the photo?

Here’s a photo of “growing towers.” What comes to mind?

I think of alternative gardens, types of gardens, creative ways to make use of space, vegetables that don’t require much space, urban gardening, windowsill gardening, rooftop gardening, container gardening . . . and on and on.

You can get inspiration from photos for almost any blogging niche. If you’re in marketing, let’s say, try searching with “marketing photos.” If you use Google (and probably any other search engine) you’ll get a result called “Images for marketing.” Whatever your niche, try searching with “[your niche] photos.” And start brainstorming.

Practice with photo prompts

Photo prompts are a great way to keep up with a daily writing habit, even if you don’t have anything you need to write that day. But you’ll need some photos.

Using your own might be fine, but I also suggest using photos you’ve never seen before (maybe trade with a friend). Otherwise, you might just think about things you already know and not fire up your creative juices.

Then again, you could make up totally fictional, funny stories about family members! And depending on the photos you have, they might inspire your best blog post yet. You never know.

Here are a few places to start.

Photo Prompts on Tumblr

150 Amazing Writing Prompts

Writing Picture Prompts on Pinterest

Now that you know more about photo prompts, you’ll never have an excuse to say, “I don’t know what to write about.” You can always practice—at least. And who knows? It might be the start of a short story, your next novel, or a blog post that goes viral.

Have you used photo prompts? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Haven’t tried yet? Share in the comments!

Photo credits: jc.winkler, “Hawk Silhouette
Evan Wood, “Wine
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