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Writing prompt 13: Less is more

21 August, 2008

Have you ever tried to distill an experience—a love affair, a fight, a meal, a holiday—into as few words as possible? Doing so makes a great writing prompt. But how few words can you use? Take your pick: 6 words or 17.


As always, you’re welcome to link in through ‘Comments’ below to showcase your response to this prompt.

If you use this prompt beyond your own personal use—e.g., for a workshop or writing group—please acknowledge Writing Companion as the source.

What’s covered:

  1. Learn to write a 6-word sentence.
  2. Learn to write a modern haiku.
  3. Choose a topic for a sentence or haiku.
  4. Try variations of this prompt.
  5. Get more ideas for six-worders.

1. Write a 6-word sentence

Not Quite What I Was Planning, by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, is a collection of six-word memoirs. The collection illustrates the wide diversity possible in such a small textual space.

What would YOU choose if summing up your life in six words?


I still make coffee for two. —Zak Nelson

Cursed by cancer. Blessed by friends. —Hannah Davies (9 years old)

(More examples and topics given at end.)

2. Write a modern haiku

Capture your experience as a modern haiku, i.e., limiting yourself to:

  • 3 lines
  • no more than 17 syllables—or 17 words.

(The kind of poem I describe is actually a senryū because it concerns human nature rather than nature. However, people often use the more well-known term haiku for any pithy 3-line poem.)

getting acquainted
beneath the hair color
the roots
—Stephen A. Peters

Edward Weiss, in his Hint of Poetry blog, suggests the following structure for a haiku:

  • Use Line 1 to identify your topic.
  • Use Lines 2 and 3 to give specific details about your topic, i.e., specifics that support, enrich, or clarify.
  • Use present tense.


New Year’s Day
my mother refreshes
her old complaints
—Robert Epstein

How well the 3 lines are used to show the sense of nothing changing in this relationship. The 2nd line ends in ‘refreshes’, which supports the topic, ‘New Year’s Day’, i.e. a new beginning. But the 3rd line brings in an opposing idea, not only ‘complaints’ but they are ‘old’.  The poem is written in present tense, giving it a sense of immediacy.

The rainy season
Sparrows taking shelter
Raindrops, too
—Kenjiro Higashi

Each of us would probably choose a different example or image to link with ‘rainy season’. The first image, birds, is a familiar one. The second image pushes us into the unfamiliar, as we consider what it could mean. Present tense is used as if the writer is there, on a rainy day, watching and recording.

3. Choose a topic

Consider what approach you’ll take—e.g., serious or humorous? Will you focus on something from everyday life? Or capture a special moment? And remember, what you write doesn’t need to make sense to anyone except yourself.

Some possibilities:

  • Sum up your life. Can you think how to capture your life in a few words?
  • Sum up your day. I once wrote diary entries as haiku. The ‘less is more’ approach enabled me to focus on the day’s important event and emotion, rather than scribble pages of boring details. You might like to try this for a week.
  • Capture the essence. Capture your sense of what’s important/odd/funny/horrible about any of the following:

    Event: Wedding, pregnancy/birth, funeral, dinner with friends, or vacation/holiday, club meeting, shopping, going to the hardware store, driving home. Embarrassing moment from past.
    Happiest moment. Saddest.Your relationship with someone, e.g., relative, friend, boss, and the kind of relationship it is, e.g., medical, financial, co-dependent, etc.

    Philosophy/social: Green/ecology, politics, racial issues, cultural issues, etc.

    Your pet, mythical creature, etc. Plants.

    Sports/pastimes: Outdoors/indoors, new passions, long-term ones, etc.

    Living thing: Relative, acquaintance, famous person, hated person. Characters you meet, e.g. your next-door neighbour, cranky clerk, librarian, brush with fame, etc.

    Pleasures/pet peeves

    Places: Outdoors, urban, exotic, from childhood, etc.

    Objects: Treasured, hated, comical/silly, frightening.

4. Try variations

  • Writing group exercise: This prompt would be fun to use as a creative exercise for a writing group because of the varied responses possible.
  • Extended prompt for daily writing: If you write everyday, choose a theme and explore it in a six-word sentence or haiku each day. The prompt could push you to consider past, present and future, fiction and fact, different cultures, information heard and your experiences.
    For example, the theme of ‘food’ could lead me to sentences and haiku about childhood favourites (green tomato pie), food horrors (fly-specked dish in Java), food connected to events (Christmas plum pudding) or even what I ate today (a lovely mezze plate at a favourite café).
    Such extended brainstorming may lead you to find something to expand on in your daily writing.
  • Exploration of your project: When starting to write a major piece of fiction or non-fiction, you may find it helpful to capture its essence by first creating a six-word sentence or 3-line poem. This preliminary work can provide you with a clearer sense of where you want to go with the piece, i.e., its theme, and help keep you on track when developing it.

5. Get more ideas for six-worders

(Mainly from Not Quite What I Was Planning)

  • Significant events
    My first concert: Zappa. Explains everything.
    Gave commencement address, became sex columnist.
  • Relationships
    Revenge is living well, without you.
    No wife. No kids. No problems.
    Woman Seeks Men–High Pain Threshold.
    Girlfriend is pregnant, my husband said.
  • Private, mysterious or philosophical
    Cheese is the essence of life.
    Wandering imagination opens doors to paradise.
    Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched.
  • Current state-of-play
    Aging late bloomer yearns for do-over.
    Still lost on road less traveled.
    SWF with older home seeks carpenter.
  • Self-description
    Fat jolly bearded origami-folding accountant.
    Seventy years, few tears, hairy ears.
    Mixed blood. I am America’s future.
  • Food
    You’re never too old for fairybread.
    Lost Mother’s recipe for tuna casserole.
    Can boil water pretty well though.
  • Love, relationships, heartbreak
    She kissed me and said yes.
    Never should have bought that ring.
    Found true love; married someone else.
    We always crave sex after sushi.
    I by the computer-him snoring.
    Heart matched his abs of steel.
    Love before first sight–met online.
    He’s weird, but he’s MY weirdo!
  • Green/nature
    Spoiled child to mama, Earth. Maturing.
    Make gardens, not war (save words).
    The meek shall inherit the garbage.
    Friends with sap, maple syrup season.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. Marsha permalink
    1 September, 2008 6:01 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. Interesting because in many plots, the hero survives but is changed somehow–of course that depends on what kind of Hero’s Journey it is. The two more words allowed ( to get to the 6 max) could capture this idea. Marsha


  2. jack permalink
    31 August, 2008 12:07 pm

    born, strived, struggled, survived.

    A four word version of the Hero’s Journey.


  3. Marsha permalink
    24 August, 2008 11:55 am

    Hi Brenda, Thanks for providing even more 6-word sentences about life. Ones I enjoyed from your list:
    Luckier than I deserve to be. Chris Madin
    Looked for answers; found new questions. Kay Dennison
    Followed white rabbit. Became black sheep.
    Not fun? Not worth it. Kab
    Life is an adventure, take detours! Annetteghallowell
    Wish everyday was a bed day. Emily


  4. 24 August, 2008 11:52 am

    The book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure in which famous and not-so-famous writers is fabulous and what a great idea it was! I have created a page with information about the book at On my page, you will find some more quotes and the chance to add your own six-word memoir.

    Personally, I like the last one which relates to my family. I have fourteen and sixteen year old sons for whom the quote is absolutely, positively true…they have their whole lives ahead of them. The quote is:

    “Fourteen years old, story still untold.”


  5. Marsha permalink
    24 August, 2008 11:15 am

    Hi Noah, Because of your great poetry blog, I thought you’d write a haiku. I like your 6-word sentences, especially the one about hormones. So odd, so true.


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