Tips and Tricks

The Word Bank Timer: My Favorite Poetry Prompt Exercise

During the past few years, I’ve been working on poetry. I used to write poems when I was younger, but younger me wrote a lot of . . . less than stellar pieces of literature (I’m being kind to my past self, as my old poetry was an amalgamation of forced rhymes and stale imagery – but what else can you expect from a twelve-year-old?). 

I got a little bit better at understanding poetry when I enrolled in a beginner’s class in college, but I never truly understood how writing poems could help me to explore and express my own thoughts, feelings, and emotions until later on in my college career.

Until then, I was just thinking about describing images and dancing around feelings. I was reusing the same old words and, it seemed to me, running out of ideas. I was starting to feel a little down on myself: if my well of creativity ran dry when it comes to poetry, how long before the same thing happens to my fiction?

Thankfully, I came across one exercise that completely changed how I approach writing poetry. Take a picture, any picture. It could be from nature (ex., mountains, rivers, fields, flowers), from a cityscape (ex., sky scrapers, city lights), from your home, your backyard, your pets, your family. It could even be a picture you yourself didn’t take; borrow one from the internet and take a look.

From there, set a 3-minute timer. It doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but while you’re wracking your brain trying to dig up ideas, the time passes slowly at first – especially as you’re getting used to the process. The more you get used to this stage, though, the faster the clock will tick.

You have 3 minutes to fill out your word bank. What I do is type those words in all caps at the top of my page, start the timer, and then scribble down as many words that come to mind as possible as I stare at my picture. Sometimes it helps to zoom in on one portion if you want more abstract words to pop into your word bank. Nothing is off the table here – colors, shapes, textures, any words that come to mind.

Jot them all down in a list on the page (for now, try not to think about how they could all be connected together; part of the fun is figuring that all out later). Once the timer goes off, you have your completed word bank. 

Next, set the timer to 8 minutes. (This goes for the word bank timer too, but you can experiment to find the amount of time that works best for you. Sometimes you can jot down as many words as you need in 1 minute and the poem in 3, sometimes it could take longer, up to 10 or even 15 minutes. One fun challenge would be to set your timer for 20 minutes or higher, just to see what comes out.)

This second timer is your poem timer. Start writing!

As you write, try your best to include all the words in your word bank. You don’t have to only use these words; in fact, I’ve written plenty of poems with this exercise from scarce word banks, and they often require many more words in order for the poem to feel complete. Try to use them all, but don’t sweat it if you end up leaving a few out. You can always go back and add them during revision, or if they just don’t fit, don’t worry about them. For now, you’re writing with as much freedom as possible while still maintaining some form of a limit: time and word constraints.

When the timer goes off, congratulations! You’ve just written a poem. 

I have the most fun with this exercise when I have no clue what I’m about to sit down and write. Usually I choose a picture at random (or even just go with 4-5 keywords to include with no picture at all – there are plenty of variations, so there’s sure to be a perfect fit for your writing routine) with no idea what I’m about to jot down.

I’m by no means finished when that 8-minute timer goes off. I’ve only finished the rough draft of my poem, and there are sure to be some changes. I like to put the poem away for a while before coming back to it and seeing what it’s truly about. Sometimes I don’t realize until months later that my subconscious was trying to tell me something.

My favorite poems to write are free-verse, and I love the freedom that form brings. But I also need some limits so I can structure my writing around something. My poems tend to be more on the abstract side in general, so it’s good to remind myself to use concrete visuals and sensory details. Having a picture close at hand really helps with that – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who can benefit from this.

I’ve recently been writing poetry using pictures from the local park: namely, its collection of roses. I titled each poem to match the name of the corresponding flower, adding an extra layer of structure. It’s been a fun experiment, and it’s actually grown into something I never expected. (Soon I’ll start sharing a few.)

This is by far my favorite poetry exercise – and it doesn’t just have to be used for poetry. It can also be helpful for practicing description, setting, and worldbuilding, depending on how you use it. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry: for whichever type of writing you want to use it for, the word bank timer exercise definitely has value. I hope this exercise will be just as helpful for you as it has been for me.

Photo by Sonja Langford on Unsplash