Expressive Writing Prompts

During this transition period, we may find that we have the opportunity to start a new hobby, like writing. Research shows that writing based on grateful/happy oriented prompts can lower stress, improve sleep, and contribute to feeling a greater sense of hope. It can also help improve your memory of events or specific moments, sharpen cognitive skills, and processing emotions.

That being said, it can be challenging to get started. Our intern, Hope Springate, has developed a list of prompts that may help jumpstart your writing experience. She found that designating time each day to focus on writing allowed them to experience many of the listed benefits.

Choose a theme below to get started. 

  • One of the things I am proudest of is...
  • What are things you appreciate about your body? How does it serve you? 
  • How can you make time for activities that make you truly happy? 
  • What can you forgive yourself for? 
  • Reflect on the nicest compliment you have ever received. What made it stick with you? 
  • What is your favorite thing about your personality? 
  • Describe your perfect day. Try to use all 5 senses.
  • 20 things that make me smile are...
  • Make a list of people in your life that genuinely support them. Write them thank you cards about how they have helped you and your favorite memories with them.
  • Something that has brought me joy today is..
  • I am the happiest when I am... 
    • With (a person) ... 
    • Doing (an activity) ... 
    • In (a place) … 
  • What is the biggest influence on your day-to-day happiness? Why do you think it affects you so much? 
  • Write about an act of kindness you have witnessed recently that touched you. 
  • Write about your favorite memory. 
  • What is your happy place? If you don’t have one right now, create one! 
  • What did you love to do as a kid?  
  • Does that activity or type of activity still being you joy?  
  • How can you incorporate that in your life today? 
  • What have you done recently that made you laugh at yourself?  
  • What is your favorite day of the year/celebration/tradition? What do you love about it? 
  • What is something kind I can do for myself today?
  • Name a compassionate way you supported someone else recently. Then write about how you can do the same for yourself.
  • What am I doing to take care of myself right now? What do I need to add to how I am caring for myself right now?
  • When was the last time someone mentioned that you seemed sad or depressed? How were you actually feeling at the time? 
  • Write about three different times that you felt sad, hopeless, or guilty due to things that were out of your control. What were these things, and how were you able to accept that you didn't have a say in what happened or what could happen? 
  • What is a fictional story (posed in a book, movie, video game, etc.) that pulled at your heartstrings. What made it resonate with you? 
  • When was a time that someone else's sadness transferred to you and made you feel the same way?  
    • What was that person upset about, and how did that person tell you (or show you)? 
    • How were you affected? Did that person notice? 
  • Write about the last time you cried about something. Do you know why it came about? Did it help you work through how you were feeling? 
  • A letter to your past self
  • A letter to your future self
  • I really wish others knew this about me…
  • What changes are these life adjustments making me realize I want to make in my life?
  • What do other people like about you?
  • Describe a time when you truly felt at peace.

Over the past year many of us have been faced with an increase in uncertainty and challenges due to the pandemic. For this reason, it is very important now more than ever to be intentional about finding things in your life and in the world that that bring you hope. It is also important to find ways to show yourself grace as things, especially right now, may not always go according to plan. Many of us find discomfort in uncertainties but remind yourself that it is okay and show yourself compassion. 

If a friend came to you after doing poorly on a test, you would not be upset with them but instead show them compassion, let them know it will be okay, and try and make them feel better. Why then do we often not respond the same to ourselves when something does not go as planned? We will explore ways to give yourself grace as well as look for ways to find hope during this time. 

  • How you are giving yourself grace? 
    • How would you respond to a friend if they came to you looking for grace? 
    • Would you respond to yourself in the same way if you needed to give yourself grace? Why or why not? 
    • What is one way you can show yourself grace each day? 
  • What are some things that have inspired you since the pandemic started? 
    • What is something good that has happened to you or around you since the start of the pandemic? 
    • How have you grown over the past year? 
  • What is discouraging about this pandemic? 
    • What is something that you miss about life before the pandemic? 
    • How have you demonstrated resilience during this time? 
  • List 5 things that makes you feel hope. 
    • Why do they make you feel hopeful? 
    • How is hope different from joy? 
    • How are hope and joy connected? 
    • What is something you are looking forward to and why? 
  • What has been altered in your life since the pandemic?  
    • What of these changes have been the biggest impositions? 
    • What changes have been for the better? 
    • What are you missing the most from before the pandemic? 
  • What has stayed the same? 
  • Did you choose to pursue something new (hobby, interest, sport, etc.) during the pandemic?  
    • If yes, why? What impact has it had on you? 
    • If no, is there something you would like to try? What might be holding you back? 
  • How have you been expressing yourself during the pandemic (journaling, dance, art, conversations with loved ones, etc.)? 
  • How have your stress levels changed since the pandemic?  
  • What has added to and what has subtracted from your stress? 
  • What are the things that bring you joy that you still have or can emphasize in your life? 
  • How are you coping with loneliness/isolation?  
    • How can you stay/are you staying connected with your community?  
    • Do you have the tools you need to preserve your mental health? 
  • What new insights are you gaining about yourself during the pandemic? 
  • What are you learning about people you are close to?  
  • How has the pandemic changed your impression of Duke or feelings of connectedness to the university community? 
  • What is something you have always wanted to learn how to do? How can you do it from home right now? 
  • Create a character that you’d want to have in your life. This could be someone you want as a friend, significant other, someone that would make you smile if you passed them on the street, anything! 
  • If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
  • What have you learned from a younger person, and what have you taught an older person?
  • Write a haiku about your breakfast. 
  • Personify your favorite household object. Describe what it would be like if it could talk, make jokes, wear clothes, make dinner, etc. 
  • Describe your famous alter ego. What would you be famous for? Where would you live? What would your style be? What would people know you as from a distance? How would you defy their expectations? 
  • Make yourself into a book or movie character. What are your guiding qualities? What little quirks set you apart from the others? What is your role in the story? 
  • What color/ice cream flavor/coffee drink/season best matches your personality and why? 
  • Who is a mentor or professor who has made an impact on your life and how did they help you?
  • Describe your favorite location in your home and why you like it. 
  • What are you thankful for about the weather today? This prompt is a great opportunity to use detailed imagery—really describe what you are seeing on your walk to class/work, out your bedroom window, on your drive to the grocery store, etc.   
  • Write about a simple pleasure that you’re thankful for. How does it help you? How do you take it for granted? 
  • What is something you are grateful that you have today that you didn’t have a year ago? 
  • Write about something or someone that makes you feel safe.  
  • What are you grateful for about your job or school schedule this semester? Think about what you are learning, the physical setting, the people you are surrounded with, etc. 
  • What books, art, media, or music are you grateful for? How have they helped you in your life? 
  • What is a mistake or failure you’ve had that you became thankful for? Maybe it helped you learn something about yourself or set you down a new path.
  • What have you accomplished today/this week/this month? 
  • What are you grateful for about the room around you? Consider the objects, light, temperature, smells, sights, and sounds around you. 
  • How are you feeling about everything that is happening in the world? What can you do to help yourself feel more at ease? 
  • What are your natural coping strategies for dealing with uncertainty? Think about this on a subconscious level, the strategies you use when you aren’t consciously dealing with uncertainty. 
  • How can you consciously deal with uncertainty in healthy ways? 
  • In what ways can you create structure in your life to feel more settled in this uncertain time? 
  • What can you be grateful for during this uncertain time? 
  • How is fear of the future affecting you? Consider it’s impact on things like decision-making, pursuing your goals, self-doubt, etc.  
  • How can you work to let things go that are out of your control? 
  • What is certain in your life? How can you focus on or remember these things? 
  • What things have you been uncertain of in the past that were positive or exciting? (Think surprises, new relationships, taking risks, etc.) 
  • What lessons have you learned about resilience as a result of this uncertainty?  
  • Write about a class that inspired you at Duke. What did you learn in this class? What about the class made you excited?
  • Who is someone who positively influenced your Duke experience? Write about your relationship with this person.
  • Write a letter to Duke.
  • In what ways have you changed in college?
  • How can you bring positive traits/habits/knowledge you gained in college to life post-grad?
  • What have you learned in your first year of college? What do you wish you had known before coming to Duke?
  • What is something you can do now that you felt you were too busy for in college life? How can you make time to do that thing?
  • What’s a class you haven’t taken yet that you want to make sure you take? Why?
  • What did you worry about in high school that you now realize you don’t stress out about as much?

Journaling in outdoor spaces can be especially refreshing. Check out these amazing outdoor spaces both on and off campus to make your next journaling session meditative. 

On campus 

Off campus 

Imposter syndrome is defined as the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications; afraid that people will expose you as a fraud; aren’t able to internalize your own success.

These feelings may arise especially when navigating your academic and professional careers.

Here are questions to help you reflect and reframe these feelings. 

  • What is your self-talk like? How do you respond internally when you succeed? 
    • Do your thoughts/patterns of self-talk help or hinder you? 
  • What do you feel like is the reason for your success? The reason for your failures? 
  • What are things that make you special? (habits, hobbies, personality traits, etc.) 
  • Do you doubt yourself and your abilities? If so, how would your life be different if you started unapologetically showcasing your talents? 
  • Write a letter to your younger self. Ask why you didn’t feel worthy of your accomplishments and when these feelings started. Reassure your younger self that you don’t need to feel like that. 
  • Write down mistakes you have made because of feeling fraudulent, how it hindered you, and what you learned from it. 
  • Who do you compare yourself to? In what ways do these comparisons help and hurt you? 
  • How do you want to feel about yourself tomorrow? How is it different than it is today? What steps could you take to help get to where you want to be? 
  • Write down 10 of your accomplishments, small or large. 
  • Make a list of people you can talk to about how you are feeling or that you know are feeling the same way. 

Resilience is one’s ability to recover from set-backs, adapt to change, and keep going in the face of adversity. During a pandemic, everyone is dealing with change to their daily lives, added sources of stress and adversity, and potentially large set-backs from where they expected to be at this point in their lives to where they actually are.  

These topics/prompts allow you to reflect on resilience in your past and present. 

  • Before COVID-19, what most challenged your ability to be resilient? (Think relationships, work stress, personal criticism, etc.) 
  • Today, what are the main factors that challenge your resilience? How are they similar to or different from what you’ve faced in the past? 
  • What set-backs have you faced in recent months? How have you coped with them? 
  • Who or what do you turn to when you are feeling your resilience draining? 
    • How can you make time for these activities, people, places, etc.? 
  • Reflect on a time when you have overcome an obstacle, small or large. 
    • What were the circumstances? 
    • How did you feel before, during, and after facing this challenge? 
    • What resources did you turn to? How can they be applied to overcoming other obstacles? 
  • Reflect on a time, before the pandemic, when you faced a major change in your life. 
    • What caused the change? 
    • To what extent did it impact your daily life? 
    • How did you adapt? How can these skills apply to the change in your life today? 
  • Reflect on how you handle change. 
    • What qualities or tendencies do you have that help you adapt to change? 
    • What areas would you like to work on? 
    • What tools or people can help you build strength in those areas? 

These topics/prompts will help you set a resilient path moving forward. 

  • Who do you want to be in 3 months? 
    • How do you want to grow between now and then? 
    • Where do you see yourself living, working, and playing? 
    • What steps will it take to get to where you want to be? 
  • What’s on your “quit list”?  
    • Are there things you want to give up or habits blocking your resilience? 
    • If so, what are they, and how can you take steps to remove them from your life? 
  • Who is on your personal “Board of Directors”? 
    • Who do you turn to when you need feedback or guidance? 
    • How have they supported you in the past, and how do you think they could support you in the future? 

Effortless perfection implies that students should be smart, fit, accomplished, beautiful, and popular without trying.  

  • Self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, body image, dating, belonging, identity 

In order to dispel the myth of effortless perfection, we all have to recognize the ways we play into this concept. 

  • What happens between when you wake up in the morning and when you have your first conversation with someone during the day? 
    • How do you shift your mood, outfit, attitude, etc. in order to face the world? 
    • Does this external appearance match your internal feelings? 
  • When someone asks you how you are doing: 
    • What do you normally say? 
    • How do you normally feel? 
    • Does what you say match how you feel? 
  • When you ask other people how they are doing: 
    • What response do you expect? 
    • What would you do if someone genuinely told you how they were feeling? How would you respond? 

If you are struggling with striving for effortless perfection, here are some things to consider to make sure you are living in a way that serves you, not the expectations of others. 

Think about your workout/exercise and/or beauty routine: 

  • What motivates you to keep up this routine? 
    • Does it serve you? Does it matter more to you personally or others’ opinions of you? 
    • What do you think would happened if you let it slip?  
    • How can you make changes to ensure that these routines are in line with your needs and not the expectations of others? 
  • Think about how you dress. 
    • Do you feel comfortable in your clothes? 
    • How does what you wear reflect or oppose your mood? Do clothes help you hide your feelings? 
    • What is the thing you would love to be wearing in this moment? Is something stopping you from wearing that? If so, what and why? 
  • Think about the conversations you have with others. 
    • Are you honest with people about how you are feeling in a given moment? 
    • If not, what stops you from being honest with others? 
    • Would knowing that other people were being honest about what they are going through change that?