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Teaching Strategies: Videos as Visual Writing Prompts

Luisa Brenton

A lot of writers don’t understand why many people can’t write. They talk about technique, storytelling, metaphors, and a bunch of other things without ever getting at the underlying problem, and that is that most people aren’t text-based creatures like most writers. The result? They’re trying to tackle the symptom rather than the illness. They are teaching writing tricks, when people don’t yet have the underlying skills to write well at all. And obviously that means that however many tips these people might read, they only get marginally better. Now that’s a waste of time. And so, today we’re going to change that. We’re going to talk about how you use teaching strategies to translate different ways of seeing the world into writing. Now, we’re taught we have five senses (we actually have somewhere around 21, but for the purpose of writing, five is fine). By far the most common sense that most us relate to the world with, however, is the sense of sight. So that’s what we’re going to focus on today. Note that these teaching strategies will also work with other techniques, like a piece of music or something that people only get to touch without it ever physically being revealed to them. That said, it will often be a little more difficult, as for the majority sight is the first and most prominent sense.

Teaching Strategies: What is a Writing Prompt?

A writing prompt is a writing technique often used by people to expand their writing repertoire -- the idea being that if you don’t use writing prompts, people have a tendency to fall back into the same writing patterns. That can get boring not only for the writer’s audience, but for the writer himself, and can seriously hamper the long-term viability of his writing career (most people get tired of the same idea expressed the same way).

The point of the writing prompt is to ask students to write about something, or to write in a style (or a combination thereof) that is new and interesting. There are tons of ways to get writing prompts online. There are a huge number of apps that will send you daily writing prompts, so that you can practice.  

Another good choice for writing prompts is the Reddit writing prompts section. People throw up countless writing prompts there a day that you can try out for. Do note that though some are really wacky and strange (and a lot are science fiction- or fantasy-based), don’t use that as an excuse to stay within your comfort zone, as then you’ll always be stuck in the same writing structures.

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An advantage of the Reddit forums is that you’ll get feedback. Do note that it’s not always that constructive.

OK, So What is a Visual Writing Prompt?

Well, it’s visual. That’s about it. Often, it might be videos. You can have stop-motion videos of changing landscape. You could have videos of animals. You could even have a constantly repeating GIF that only runs five seconds.

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be moving (though when you’re just starting out, that might be a good idea as it will give people more to work with). All it needs to do is give a person enough to write about to fulfill the task. So the longer the text that you want to write, the more should probably be going on in the video.

How Do You Use It?

Much like any other writing prompt, there is technically no wrong way to use visual writing prompts. That said, there are better ways to use them and worse ways to use them. Here, we’re talking about how visual prompts can be used to give people who navigate the world mainly through sight (rather than, say, words) the ability to translate visual cues into words. The aim here is simply for them to learn how words can come to rival visual images, or how they can take visual images and describe them in in enough detail that most people will be able to select the visual from a set of very similar visuals.

We want them to think about what words might serve best to translate a visual image correctly – and possibly just as importantly in a manner that is interesting. Once a person has cracked that part of the writing process, it becomes far easier for them to grow it and expand into new areas of writing and understanding, which will allow them to do anything from no longer needing smart paper help to creating a more engaging narrative in anything from storytelling to business emails.  

Give Examples

Now, to really help your students along, it helps to give them examples of how it can be done. Obviously, if you can write well, then it’s great for you to also write about the scene in the same way that they are being asked to write about it. You can then use this as a teaching aid to give people an idea of how it should be done.

Alternatively, if you’re not comfortable with this, then there are plenty of professional writers’ descriptions of famous visuals – be they pieces of art or famous landmarks. Taking these and using them as ways to teach people how they might represent a visual images in words so that they’re possibly even more captivating is a quick way for your students to grasp some of the fundamentals about how to do these things correctly.

Last words

Visual writing prompts are another fantastic way to get a group of people to write on a different level. A lot of writers get so caught up in “Telling” rather than “Showing” that they barely give any descriptive detail as well.

For those people, being forced to write only about what they see in a scene is a fantastic way for them to expand their repertoire and let them bust out of their frame of reference. No, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easy for them, but that’s not the point. We struggle today so that we might do things simply and quickly when we need to.