Pictures as Writing Prompts

Facing the blank page and feeling it staring back at you can feel intimidating. Using
prompts is a great way to get beyond that stare and allow the ink to flow,whether you are
writing in a group or on your own. Prompts can be objects, phrases or quotations; they can also be an intriguing question, a humourous saying, a nonsense word that has to be defined.  But one of the best items to use for a prompt is a picture. Pictures encourage the imagination visually and and bypass the thought processes that words may evoke.

Where to Find Pictures

Taking your own photographs is a great idea, and one I covered in a previous post. Click HERE to read more. But personal photos limited you to scenes you encounter during your daily life and while travelling. In order to present the widest range of images possible it is necessary to turn to other sources.  Here are some ideas:

  • purchase books with great images at used used book sales.  I attend sales atDSC00438A  used bookstores where I often purchase full-colour and black and white image coffee table books for as little as $1. Images I’ve used from these books include:  historical photographs; European art; abstract art; images from nature; and pictures of people living and working in rural Canada
  • go to garage sales with the same quest in mind
  • library sales are another source
  • clip vivid images from magazines.  You may wish to glue them to some form ofDSCN4536 backing, such as card stock
  • use royalty free photographs you find online, and print them using a colour printer
  • search out old postcards at antique sales. Sometimes you’ll find they have handwritten messages on the back that can be used as prompts

How to Use Pictures With a Writing Group

  • display the pictures on a tabletop or even on the floor
  • invite group members to move around so that they can see all of the images
  • suggest that group members not talk as they are doing this as talking can interrupt someone else’s inner dialogue
  • ask people to choose a photograph they feel drawn to, even if they don’t understand why
  • alternatively, use a single large picture and have the whole group write about the same image

How to Respond to a Picture Prompt 

Do you sometimes draw a blank as you hold a picture intended to inspire your freewriting. Do you freeze up, rather than flow? Of course, you can write about being stuck, but there are also some other strategies you can employ to encourage an image to float to the surface.  Here are some tips to get you started:

  • does the picture evoke a feeling?  If so, where do you feel that feeling in your body?DSCN5238 Allow your consciousness to settle there for a moment.  Listen for a whisper, then write
  • is there a person in the picture?  What if you could magically inhabit their body?  Write from that person’s perspective – what troubles them, what brings them joy, what is going to happen next?
  • if the picture is a scene from nature, open your senses. Can you smell the scent of the pines, hear the water 137crash upon the rocks, taste the salt in the air, feel the roughness of the bark, see the red ball of the sun as it peeks above the horizon? Start writing from the perspective of a single sense
  • is the picture of a dwelling?  Imagine who lives there and what their life might be like.  Write about them

A Few Ideas for Combining Pictures + Words or Items

  • assemble a group of pictures with a similar theme – all landscape, for example.  On slips of paper, feature quotes about people who have been moved by the landscape surrounding them.  Writers choose a photo and a quote at random
  • assemble a group of pictures of people in their eighties and nineties.  Also make DSCN9479available a number of objects from the home – kitchen utensils, small workshop tools, craft projects, handmade items.  Ask writers to choose a photograph and an object to prompt their writing

Some Prompts for You

Here are some images to inspire your own writing. Choose one and write for 10 minutes.


















I’d love to hear how you use picture prompts to inspire your own writing, or that of a writing group.

Until next time,



Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, December 1. We hope you can join us.

If you enjoyed reading this post, why not subscribe to our blog? Just enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top right hand corner of this page.  The names of new subscribers in November will be entered in a draw to win a copy of Brenda Ueland’s classic book, “If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.” Our October winner was Isobel Warren who received a copy of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

All photographs and drawings in this post are by Janis McCallen.






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