Coaching the Overwhelmed Writer

I stumbled upon Austin Kleon’s work a few years ago while struggling to support writers through the process of creative theft. They were working on fan fiction, and many of them were having a hard time distinguishing stealing with integrity from…..well….simply stealing.

Over the years, I’ve come to view plagiarism as something of a developmental phase, so when I encounter it in my work with students, I try to work them through it and beyond it by providing specific strategies. This is how I fell in love with Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. Here, he shares a list of ten things he wished he had learned when he was starting out:


Image via Austin Kleon

He also makes bits of his own writing process transparent, including his affinity for index cards. His wisdom and his willingness to share his process transformed the way that I approach writing instruction, helping me reach writers who claimed to have nothing to say and showed little more than disdain for the entire endeavor.

Austin Kleon inspired us to write bit by bit. This allows us to move. It makes our writing movable too. And as you can see, this has changed everything.  The photos below were taken during our sessions at the Western New York Young Writers’ Studio. I started this community eight years ago, and I spend a lot of time learning from the writers and teachers who hang out with me there. They gave me their permission to share these photos with you. In fact, many of them encouraged me to. Writing this way empowers them, and they’re happy to share their successes with others who might benefit from them.

So many of the kids that I work with describe their initial thoughts about a topic as fragmented and incoherent.

“They’re swirling around in my head, and I can’t get them on paper,” I’m often told, and I can relate. This used to overwhelm me too.

I found that capturing those fragments on sticky notes and allowing myself to distribute them randomly in open space helped a great deal. Spilling all of my ideas onto small slips of paper in whatever order they occurred to me alleviated much of the pressure that graphic organizers and outlines always seemed to inspire.

As I began sharing this approach with other writers, they taught me something more: Writing this way encourages patient and high productively brainstorming. When we move our notes around, ideas connect in ways we didn’t expect, too. Sparks fly. Unexpected possibilities emerge. Index cards and sticky notes contain this creative chaos, and when we’re ready, we approach our chosen forms with greater vision and ownership.

In order to encourage this kind of experimentation, writers need a bit of space to move their writing around. Desktops, tables, whiteboards, and walls work well, but when I’m helping a large group of students, I prefer to give each of them a 32×40 inch foam board. They’re lightweight, sturdy, and easy to transport. Writers tinker around with their ideas and make decisions about structure on the board. Then, they move their sticky notes or cards into their writer’s notebooks where they can reference them as they draft:


Of course, there are a number of digital tools that enable this kind of writing well. Our favorites include Evernote and Padlet.

Last week, I shared these pages from my sketchbook with my friends on Twitter. This inspired quite a few follow up conversations in other networks and through email as well. I thought I’d leave them here for all of you. These are just a few ways to construct narratives, claims, or informational pieces bit by bit. The boxes represent sticky notes or cards. Perhaps this reminds you of a similar approach that serves your students well. If so, I hope you’ll share it!

How do you help writers brainstorm and organize abundant ideas without overwhelming them? Come chat with me about this on Twitter @angelastockman or on Facebook at


  1. Thank you, Angela, for this post and for sharing your ideas. Writing ideas down as they come, instead of trying to compose them in an orderly fashion, frees our mind to expand its creativity. It helps remove the ‘blocked brain’ syndrome that affects so many young (and not-so-young) writers. I always enjoy hearing about what’s going on at your Writing Studio.


    1. Thanks for this, Jennifer! I learn so much from everyone there, and I’m grateful that they let me share. I’ll post some more ideas here in the future, too. Spring and summer are our busy times!

  2. Thank you so much for this great post. I really like the physical moving of ideas by the writers on the post its.. I have found that struggling writers respond to and need some physical handling of their ideas and that seems to make their learning so much more engaging. Not too sure what the brain theory is behind it .. but it seems to work

    1. I’m not certain of the theory either! I discovered the connection through a lengthy action research process. It’s incredible what I learn by watching what writers do when I give them abundant time and materials and choice. This was a game changer, for sure. Thanks for taking the time to connect here! 🙂

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