Many of us want to write fiction but rarely manage to get round to it. We struggle to find a free hour to write in – or the energy to write. Doing writing bursts is a great way to get going when time is short and motivation flagging.

What is a writing burst?

I came across the concept in Robert Graham’s How to Write Fiction (And Think About It). Mini-exercises are scattered throughout the book, and Graham explains:

Every class I teach begins with a 10 minute writing exercise which I call a writing burst. I give a stimulus and ask the class to start writing, keep writing for 10 minutes and not to worry for one second about the quality of the work appearing on the paper.

When the thought of sitting down and writing a whole short story is daunting, it’s much easier to find 10 minutes. Open your notebook or word-processing program of choice, write the burst at the top, then set a timer – and write without stopping or looking back.

How do writing bursts help?

I use writing bursts when I have very little time in the day to write but wanted to feel I’ve achieved something. They’re also great for establishing a creative mood at the beginning of a long writing session.

You can use the material you produce as a starting point for longer pieces. One of mine became a thousand-word “twist in the tale” a short story that I’ve submitted to a woman’s fiction magazine.

The bursts help you to generate new or unusual ideas – I come up with more creative and interesting concepts than usual because I don’t stop to self-edit.

Where do you find them?

There are plenty of sources for writing burst prompts.

  • The Writers’ Book of Matches, by Writers’ Digest Books, is a collection of “1,001 prompts to ignite your fiction”.
  • The Pocket Muse: Ideas and Inspirations for Writing have some similar exercises, as well as photo prompts to help spark your writing.
  • Competitions which give the first line can be used as writing bursts.
  • Famous quotes can work well, so long as they’re short.
  • Phrases or lines from a story you’ve read that inspire you are also good starting points.

What variations are there?

If you’ve tried a few writing bursts and you’re starting to get bored, the concept is open to any number of tweaks.

When ten minutes starts to seem too rushed, you could lengthen the burst to fifteen or twenty minutes.

If your ideas seem stale or trite, try writing with a friend: use the same prompt and swap the pieces that emerge. Alternatively, use multiple prompts – pick two prompts at random and figure out how to use them both.

If you’re writing a novel or extended piece of fiction and have ground to a halt, use a prompt to get going again. You can always cut the scene out later – but it just may give your story the new life it needs.

Some writing prompts

  • After completing a solo camping trip, a woman gets her film developed and discovers that several photos are of her … sleeping. (From 1,001 Prompts)
  • “That was the moment I wished I could remember what we’d been taught.” (from How to Write Fiction)
  • “She’s been told.” (from How to Write Fiction)
  • “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” (Samuel Johnson)
  • A man sneezes painfully. He looks into his handkerchief and finds something that looks like a microchip. (From 1,001 Prompts)
  • “The place is very well and quiet and the children scream only in a low voice.” (Byron)

Pick one of the prompts now – you can afford ten minutes – grab that blank page, and go!

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